The film centers on the life of Karen Silkwood, the nuclear whistleblower and labor union activist and her struggle while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Oklahoma, where she worked alongside her friend Dolly Pelliker (Cher) and her boyfriend Drew Stephens (Russell).
At the 56th Academy Awards, Silkwood received five nominations in total, including Best Actress (Streep), Supporting Actress (Cher), Director (Nichols), Original Screenplay (Ephron and Arlen), and Editing (Sam O'Steen). The film also received five Golden Globe nominations, with Cher winning for her performance.
This film features examples of:
- Based on a True Story: Of whistleblower Karen Gay Silkwood.
- Butch Lesbian: Dolly is a lesbian that has the Patti Smith look going.
- Downer Ending: Karen dies in a car crash which was probably intentional and never manages to expose whatever was going on.
- He Knows Too Much: Karen was on her way to meet with a reporter, carrying multiple incriminating documents, when she died in a mysterious car crash. When her body is discovered after the crash, the documents are mysteriously absent.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: Karen's death. Although she was technically intoxicated (the amount of sedative in her blood was nearly twice needed for sleep), the documents she'd been carrying were missing and the back of the car was marked by both damage and paint chips that weren't there before, indicating that she was hit from behind and forced off the road.
- Line-of-Sight Name: The film includes a telling of the "One-Man-Pouring-A-Bucket-Of-Water-Over-Two-Dogs" joke.
- Right Through the Wall: Discussed by Drew and Dolly after Dolly brings her lover Angela home:Drew: Make enough noise there, Dolly?
Dolly: You two ain't exactly a silent movie yourselves.
- The '70s: The film takes place in the early part of the decade, leading up to Karen Silkwood's death in 1974.
- Sorry, I'm Gay: A male construction worker attempts to hit on Dolly, leading to this exchange.Dolly: (pause) ...I am really not interested. Come on, move.
- Spoiler Cover: The film poster depicts a still of Karen looking worried at her rearview mirror; at the time the film came out, her death wasn't even ten years old yet, so it was considered sufficiently fresh in public memory.