Silkwood (1983)

Last modified: November 8, 2018

This movie is about a small community in America who are working in a plutonium/uranium factory. Throughout the movie it becomes clear that the board of the factory does not take the security measures too seriously. When the main character; who is one of the factory’s employees, finds out that contamination with uranium or plutonium can cause cancer, she carefully starts collecting evidence that proves the lack of security measures. She does so with the goal of eventually blowing the whistle on the factory to raise public awareness on the topic of factors that may cause cancer.

Relevance

Research integrity topics discussed in this movie are: manipulating research data in order to obscure it for the controlling authorities, whistleblowing by one of the employees, unauthorized data use by the main character to prove the lack of security measures, and blaming and punishing employees for certain wrongdoings of those in charge of the company.

This movie is included in the Fiction movies for RCR education.

Key words: Research waste / Conflict of interest / Prevention
Medium: This film is available on DVD
Fragments: 4

Internet Movie Database (IMDb) about this movie: IMDb
Biography /History/ Drama / playing time: 131 min.

Content and context

The movie Silkwood is the story about employees if the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Oklahoma, making plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors. As the movie opens, Karen Silkwood, the main character of the movie played by Meryl Streep, stands out from the rest of the workingmen and woman in the factory, she is a strong individual who thinks for herself and is punished for her freedom.

The nuclear plant in the film is behind on schedule for the delivery for an important costumer. People are working overtime and corners are being cut. A series of small incidents convinces Karen Silkwood that these shortcuts are dangerous, as they put the health of the workers in unnecessary danger. Therefore, Silkwood approaches the union. The union sees some publicity in her complaints and offers her a free trip to Washington to meet with some union officials who turn out to be much more concerned with publicity than with working conditions.
What is interesting is that this movie is based on a true story; Karen Silkwood died in a mysterious automobile accident while she was on her way to deliver some documents to a New York Times reporter when her car left the road. The documents were never found. Whether Silkwood’s dead was accident or caused in some way, if she murdered or not? The movie does not provide on answer. Nor does it point suspicion only towards the company. The movie tells a story of an ordinary woman trying to tell the world the truth as she saw it, even though people might not have liked to hear it, and this ends up the last thing she does.

Fragments

There are 4 fragments selected from this film; each has its own accompanying ethics section. These fragments are to be watched in order and have a combined educational value.

Fragment 1: [22:00 – 24:30]

This fragment shows the moment where Silkwood is accused of knowingly contaminating herself while actually it is the company’s fault. It is illustrative of the vulnerability of the individual and of how easy it can be for a supervisor to blame a pupil or employee of causing certain problems.

A situation, which could occur in a conventional scientific community, where a project leader (Doc. or Prof.), is strongly dominant over the students working for him. In such a situation made mistakes can easily be put on the account of the students instead of the authority.
Ethics for fragment 1

This fragment shows the frustrating effect of market forces. The main aspect of the story line of the film concerns the effect of the rise of working pressure because of a certain deadline that needs to be met. The direct result is that the safety of the employees is put into question. Also, it shows a situation of misuse of a certain power by an authority over his or her employees and/or students. A critical way of thinking about one’s position in comparison to others, and the moral responsibility that comes with it, is crucial to disclose possible abuse of authority.

Fragment 2: [49:09 – 49:09]

The number of spots on the plate is indicative for the chance of contaminations. The fragment shows the obscuring/erasing of information by an employee who is seemingly not fully aware of what he is doing and what the consequences are. The importance of awareness and vigilance by researchers conducting scientific research is thus demonstrated.
Ethics for fragment 2

This fragment is concerned with obscuring of research data. Some of the factory employees knowingly and by commission of the board, obscure certain research results in order to hide the factory’s negligence of the security of it employees. One could also pose the following question; can the obscuring of research data be justified? In this movie, it clearly cannot, as it endangers the health of the employees, but what if it had a positive effect on the health of the employees?

Fragment 3: [51:00 – 51:40]

The union and workers want good working conditions, but they also what to keep their jobs. It is for this reason they want to bring the factories wrongdoing to the open. Silkwood’s feeling of a moral obligation to help people to protect themselves and stand up for their rights is not much appreciated by her colleagues. Although this is due to ignorance concerning the effects of contamination, it is illustrative for the possible situations of solitude where a whistle-blower might end up in.
Ethics of fragment 3

This fragment is a piece that highlights the moral problems concerning whistleblowing, the main character of the movie, Silkwood, blows the whistle on the factory where she is employed. The film shows the destructive effect of whistleblowing on one’s life, even if on tries to do it secretly and anonymously. The factory board, the co-employees and the contractor are all not benefiting from the effect of whistleblowing and for this reason do not come in to defence. The movie illustrates how isolated one can become when whistleblowing.

Fragment 4: [1.06.00 – 1.07.20]

In this clip the point at which the union does a whistleblowing proposition to Silkwood (securing her safety and bringing the unjust to the open) is shown. What becomes clear is that the union is much more concerned with publicity than with bettering the working conditions. It is for this reason that the clip is illustrative of situations in which whistleblowing is not the best option; the authority one tells her story to is in this case not integer. In these kinds of situations, the whistle blower puts his or her, and that of their colleagues, safety on the risk to get nothing in return from it. It is for this reason that a deliberated plan is in such cases the moral obligation one has to adhere to before whistleblowing.
Ethics of fragment 4

The moral questions the film appoints to: against what costs one should try to bring the truth about certain research misbehaviours to light? And what is the best manner to do so? As the movie shows, the consequences can be harsh.

Suggested use for education

While the chosen fragments from this movie are in some way connected to the research misbehaviour topics, they are not naturally profound or insightful when one wants to create a better understanding of these generally complex topics. Due to this fact, the chosen fragments (but also the movie in its entirety) can be used in education on research integrity, but a comprehensive introduction of the used fragment is recommended. For the topical depth and a clear explanation of the topics has to be added by the possible user. Through the use of the recommended fragments a user can let his audience empathize with the position of a whistle-blower. A possible question one could ask his audience afterwards is who of them would also blow the whistle and who would keep quiet. Subsequently one could ask for the motivation behind such choices and start a discussion on how to improve a business or university structure to better the position for possible whistleblowing.

Realism

The story of this film is quite realistic, as it is based on a true story. Although some of the overdramatized situations the movie can be useful in education on the discussed research integrity topics. As counts for all feature films that are made for a broad audience, there is always the struggle of on the one hand producing an easily understandable story, and on the other hand not giving a too simplistic representation of reality.

Ending

The main character dies in a car accident when returning from an important meeting connected to the whistle blowing case she started against the factory. It is not clear whether the accident was coordinated by someone or not, also the movie does not tell.

NRIN devotes a great deal of attention to the website’s content and would greatly appreciate your suggestions of documents or links you believe to belong on this website.

This selection is an incomplete convenience sample, and does not reflect NRIN’s vision or opinion. Including an item does not necessarily mean that we agree with the authors nor does it imply we think unmentioned items are of poorer quality.

Please report any suggestions, inaccuracies or nonfunctioning hyperlinks etc. that you discover. Thanks in advance!

Contact
Icon