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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Conservatives: go see The Iron Lady

I went to see the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady last week with some trepidation. I was expecting the worst from liberal Hollywood and was prepared to be outraged by Meryl Streep's portrayal of the great Thatcher descending into dementia, but I came out with tears in my eyes and a new respect for her legacy. Conservatives should definitely see this movie.

It's difficult to tell the story of a complex larger-than-life figure like Margaret Thatcher, especially while she is still alive and memories of her time in office are still relatively fresh. She is a complicated subject who still provokes strong emotions on both sides of the political spectrum, so making a movie about her must have been a daunting prospect. However I think The Iron Lady does a remarkably even-handed job of portraying the life of this fascinating woman.

Most of the criticism I've read of the movie from conservatives suggests that it is disrespectful to show the still-living Thatcher in her declining years fighting senility. I disagree - I think that telling the story as a series of flashbacks is remarkably effective. We see Thatcher in the present day puttering around her house, confused and dishevelled, having imaginary conversations with her dead husband Denis. Certain things trigger memories - a framed photograph on the mantlepiece, a piece of clothing hanging in the closet - which segue into scenes of the younger Thatcher at various times in her life. We flash back to Thatcher as a young girl during the Blitz, running for Parliament for the first time, assuming the leadership of the Conservative Party, serving as Prime Minister. Key events like the Falklands War, the Poll Tax Riots and the fall of the Berlin Wall are shown through TV footage interwoven with the flashbacks. Critics have complained that the movie is disjointed and confusing, jumping back and forth in time with no coherent plot. I think that is a feature not a fault; given that the character is recalling moments in her past that are brought up by mementos and chance encounters, it is poignant to view her life through the eyes of a once-powerful figure now in decline.

Her husband Denis acts like a Greek chorus throughout the movie as she tries to cope with her declining physical and mental powers. She knows he's dead but has trouble coming to grips with her grief and conjures him up at key moments and they bicker with each other as do many long-married couples. Her conversations with Denis are some of the most moving moments in the film. Her confusion is heart-wrenching to watch. I am having to face the decline of aging parents in my own life, and watching the woman who helped bring down the Soviet Union having trouble with simple tasks like making toast and getting dressed touches a universal chord with anyone who is coping with aging loved ones. Her final farewell to Denis had me choking up with emotion, and I don't often do that in a movie.

Liberal critics complain that the movie is too one-sided and shows Thatcher as a heroic figure without focusing adequately on the negative aspects of her time in office; the riots, the social upheaval and the casualties of war. I suppose that someone who is predisposed to dislike her because she was a conservative free-marketeer will never be happy with any sympathetic portrayal, but I found the movie to be very fair. We are shown news footage of rioting coal miners, IRA terror attacks and Exocet missiles slamming into British destroyers. There are scenes showing her treating loyal cabinet ministers like Geoffrey Howe with rudeness and contempt as her administration unravels. The movie doesn't pull punches - it shows Thatcher warts and all.

The most powerful parts of the movie for me, and I suspect for most conservatives, are the scenes where Thatcher emotionally articulates her political philosophy. I read once that she walked into a meeting soon after becoming leader of the Conservative Party, pulled a copy of F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty out of her briefcase, slammed it down on the table and said "This is what we believe." There are many such moments in the film. It is astonishing to watch a politician whose actions are motivated by a deeply held philosophy rather than mere ambition or hunger for power. When has there been a leader like this since Thatcher? Politics has been dominated by technocrats, snake-oil salesmen and unctuous bureaucrats for so long that we've forgotten what true leadership is like. Who can now hold a candle to Margaret Thatcher? Certainly not Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper or any of the non-entities now in charge of the slow-motion train wreck that is Europe. Who could you picture now addressing a crowd and solemnly intoning "You can turn if you want to; the lady's not for turning"?

This amazing quality of Thatcher's is on display in scene after scene of The Iron Lady - when, for example, she breaks the coal miners strike or lets the IRA hunger strikers die of starvation. There is a brilliant sequence in the film set during the Falklands War when Thatcher is in the War Room being briefed by the military top brass who want her to make a decision on whether or not to attack the Argentine cruiser Belgrano - she listens to her advisers, points with a bejewelled and manicured finger to a map and says in stentorian tones, "Sink it." In another scene (shown below) she meets with US Secretary of State Alexander Haig who tries to talk her out of attacking the islands, since they're insignificant and sparsely populated. "Just like Hawaii, I imagine" she retorts, and then delivers a lecture to Haig about Pearl Harbor like a school teacher upbraiding a misbehaving student, after which she lifts a teapot and asks "Now, shall I be mother?"

There were times in the movie as I watched Thatcher at the height of her power lecturing the spineless men around her about liberty and the over-reaching power of the state when I pumped my fist a little and said "Yes!!!!" under my breath so as not to disturb the other patrons in the theater. She articulated forcefully and emotionally the core principles of classical liberalism: liberty, property rights, personal responsibility and the relative roles of the individual and the state. Libertarianism has never had as powerful a champion as Margaret Thatcher.

A few words have to be said about Meryl Streep's performance in this film. I sometimes think of her as an acting robot who is programmed to take on characters; she's often more technique than emotion. It's now a cliche that she can mimic any character she portrays and make it seem effortless; think Julia Child in Julie and Julia. That being said, her portrayal of Thatcher in this movie is flawless; she has captured every mannerism, every vocal pattern, every physical tic of Thatcher's. There is no mockery; Streep is not doing a stand-up comic's impersonation to take cheap shots. She inhabits the character; I don't think any other actor could have pulled it off. It is wonderful to watch Streep in action as she moves through the different phases of Thatcher's life, and it was extremely moving to see her poignant portrayal of the warrior in old age, rather like watching King Lear wandering the moors.

I can't say enough about this movie, and I think it stands as a fitting tribute to one of the world's great leaders. Go see it now while it's still in the theaters.

UPDATE: Thatcher advisor and biographer John Blundell likes the movie too - watch this interview from


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your review of this movie. As a conservative, I was wondering whether it was worth it to see it.

Anonymous said...

I agree. The movie is so politically incorrect, it is breathtaking.

I think though there were too many scenes of her dementia.

I wish there had been more on the fierce opposition to her putting missiles in Europe and how she helped end the cold war. Also how much her husband was ridiculed.

Even today there is the Billy Elliot film and broadway show with its fierce denunciation of Thatcher. She and Bush both suffered and continue to suffer from those who had Thatcher and or Bush Derangement syndrome.

I fear that liberal Hollywood will not give Meryl Strep her due and the actress in The Help will win the oscar for best actress instead.

Anonymous said...

I agree.Meryl Streep should win an academy award for this one.It places a very human element on the Iron Lady and proves she is vindicated for actions while prime minister of Britain.

Margaret Thatcher stood on principle over the Falkland Islands.Ill bet Britain will do it again too.


Commercial iron doors said...

Amazing how simple it can be to communicate with people and have them understand a certain topic, you made my day.