Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Iron Lady & Iron Economics

“It used to be about trying to do something, and now it's about trying to be something,” Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) says to a young female admirer of her accomplishments; Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady is doing something. Just as Britain's first woman Prime Minister freed England from “the shackles of Socialism,” this “biography” reminds government officials the important—and hard—lessons Thatcher learned about rejuvenating a weak economy and embracing free market capitalism. 
While The Iron Lady does honor Margret Thatcher, it is only a veiled biography and I mean that in a good way. History films are never about history, as I have often said, and biographies are never biographies; the lessons and struggles certain people lived through and experienced, are the larger-than-life lessons and vehicles for discussions of how things should be done today; biographies are catalysts, but they are not biographies; they are vehicles for dialogue, but they are not biographies. I'm quite shocked by the accusations of the film being a "musical," so I would like to contend with that first.
"Napoleon called us a nation of shop keepers and I take that as a compliment!" Margaret's father tells a crowd. The young Margaret, above, sweeps the sidewalk at her father's grocery store and this is genuinely where she learned the lessons that Oxford might refine for her, but reality taught her first, and The Iron Lady clearly shows that, while it was hard for her growing up as a worker, instead of her more fashionable friends, these were the days that made her and the reason she had the courage to look her English contingency in the eye and convince them that she knew exactly what was important to them and how to get a healthy economy back for England, Britain and the world.
"The music has stopped," John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) dramatically remarks in the economic thriller  Margin Call about the devastating loss their company is going to take in the fire sale and how it will effect everyone else... in the world. The "music" refers to the sound of sales at the cash register, brokers on Wall Street, loan officers saying "Yes!" and crisp bills being passed from one hand to another; that music has stopped. In The Iron Lady, musicals are used, but they are used effectively to correlate with J.C. Chandor's Margin Call and to remind us today that, in Thatcher's time, the "Music had stopped," but because of her devotion to solid economic policies and her courage to carry through with economic reforms, the music started back up. (For my review of Margin Call, please see Deconstructing Volatile Risk: Margin Call).
After a lost campaign. The blue ribbon she wears is saved by her husband, Dennis. This shot reflects the simple, but consistent use of color in the film to convey her "state of mind" and heart. In this shot, she wears a brownish/gray suit, which is accurate because she's very humble at this point and a novice.
In the opening scene of  The Iron Lady, we first see the great woman who helped end the Cold War buying milk at her local grocery and being shocked at how much the price has gone up; from the beginning of her life as the daughter of a grocer, to her zenith as England's prime minister, she always kept in touch with the basic commodities and how price fluctuations effected people's daily lives. That Thatcher specifically buys milk symbolizes the nourishment of a mother to her children; who are her children? Us. The wise child accepts the nourishment of what can be gained by letting go of the past, getting rid of socialist programs, freeing the market; nourishment is taking the medicine that needs to be taken, regardless of how bitter, because it's the only way the patient will get well.
Young Margaret and young Dennis talking about marriage. When they first meet, it is at a dinner and a dish is served that the outsider Margaret doesn't know how to eat (I don't even know what the dish was). Dennis leans over to her and whispers, "Start at the outside and work your way in," talking about the dish, of course, and how to eat it, but that was also the brilliant lesson he gave her about her political career, and he stuck by her.
And then there is a second reference to motherhood: eggs.
At her apartment, she boils two eggs for her and her husband Dennis. Because eggs symbolize new life, they represent the children to whom she will give new life because of the dialogue they will have with her administration and the difficulties, challenges and responses of her policies as a result of this film and the demands of this period in history requiring the same type of strategy to the world market which both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan employed to re-build their economies.
The Iron Lady, like My Week With Marilyn, deals with trade unions, and very boldly. The unions are striking and there is a total break-down of society, trash piled up everywhere and all utilities shutting down. The Parliament is in a meeting and the lights go off; a flashlight suddenly lights up the room and who but Mrs. Thatcher has it? Thatcher's purse is very much like Mary Poppins' carpet bag from which she pulls out everything she needs, notably, all the lessons from history to "illuminate" the crisis at hand (please see Mary Poppins: Frankenstein & Animal Farm for more).
This is the point of her sitting down to autograph a stack of biographies on her; she signs, signs, signs and then, instead of writing Margaret Thatcher, she writes “Margaret Roberts,” her maiden name, and she goes back to the bombing raids during World War II when she and her family were grocers, they are being bombed, and she forgot to put the glass cover over the butter; this corresponds later in the film when her own party is “bombing” her as she is about to go to a palace ball and she's being fitted in her gown and even though she is prime minister, she can still show her party that she's not out of touch with reality, she knows the price of every single brand of butter on the market. Why is this important? Because in our daily lives, butter is important, and before she was Prime Minister Thatcher, she was the grocer Roberts' daughter.
One of the many times Thatcher has to face riots because of her devotion to a genuine capitalist economy and her courage to not "embrace Socialism" when the temptation turns up over the staggering 3 million unemployed. Thatcher refuses to create a weakened or prolonged recovery period by implementing programs that will suck money out of the economy instead of make money for the workers and factories and the riots of 2011 in England are the direct reason this film was made, as a reminder of what pitfalls to avoid and what road to stick to.
After buying milk, Thatcher returns to her apartment and has breakfast with her husband Dennis (James Broadbent); then we realize she has been hallucinating: Dennis died years ago from cancer. We could say that image is consistent with politicians today, talking to an economy that died years ago from various forms of economic cancer, hallucinating that it's still alive and thriving. Whenever there is amnesia or dementia, any kind of “forgetting” disease, it's representative of culture and society, so the point is to try and figure out what it is that we are hallucinating about, what it is that we are forgetting.
James Broadbant as Dennis Thatcher, her husband and best friend.
Many appropriate symbols are employed through the film, and emphasis is placed on shoes, and how Thatcher wears a very different shoe than all the men in Parliament and her husband Dennis not wearing any shoes at all. As always, the feet symbolize our will, and shoes provide us with commentary on what guides a character: Thatcher's feminine shoes set against a “universe” of men's dress shoes, brings out in clear relief her dramatically different approach to government affairs; it's not that she's “out of step” with what's going on, it's that she's walking a different step and a different beat. It's also because she has a feminine will, rather than a masculine will, that she is able to abolish old institutions that are no longer serving their purpose because her purpose isn't her party's purpose. Similarly, when she's young and sweeping the sidewalk, and the upper-class girls walk by, the camera takes care to provide us with a shot of their fashionable shoes, and contrast it with young Margret's plain shoes: what Margret Thatcher did wasn't ever a matter of fashion, because her will was determined by what was practical.
The "make-over" scene, when Margret Thatcher is given the hair and make-up that will take her to the prime ministry. What is it about this? Do men get make-overs like this? Um, no, but that doesn't mean that she's being prepped for sex appeal, it doesn't mean that she's putting on a social/political mask to hide her true self beneath an expedient image, rather, it's like a highlighter, bringing out what is best and important about what it is that she is saying, so that people will listen and Thatcher will have confidence in herself to say what she believes.
The IRA bombs the Grand hotel where her and husband Dennis are staying, and after the explosion, we see Dennis holding his shoes in his hands. In some ways it's a bizarre gesture until you realize the motivation of love which prompts him to do it: not wearing any shoes, nothing hinders his will, his will is naked for all to see and nothing has coerced his decision to be with her, at that moment, and he wouldn't change any of it.
It's not just about "being different" for the sake of being different, or not compromising just to be stubborn and make others bow before you in a psychedelic power trip; Thatcher doesn't run with the crowd when the crowd is running over a cliff and the crowd gets upset with her when she won't. The point is that her courage and fidelity to proven economic models and solutions worked when the others said it wouldn't and her refusal to compromise and her refusal to condemn the models as false that she knew were not only accurate and correct, but the very best models for the economy.
In another scene, as Thatcher is off to her first day in Parliament, she looks in the car mirror; seeing her red lipstick on her teeth, she wipes it off with a black gloved finger. The red lipstick symbolizes the appetites and is doubly enhanced by being on her mouth which also symbolizes the appetites; wiping off the lipstick, symbolizes her femininity and womanhood, with a black, gloved finger, is symbolic of her strength (the hand) coming from a lack of ambition (dead to worldly ambition) and her desire to be a public servant. This is important because before she runs for prime minister, Dennis accuses her of ambition, but it is her genuine desire to serve the state that is the vehicle (her driving in the car) of her career.
The Iron Lady doesn't hesitate to let the audience know what happened as a result of Thatcher's economic policies: people got rich. The economy boomed and everyone profited. The specific poll tax which she sought to pass equally on all members of society was a highly controversial aspect of her policies and she is still negatively remembered for it.
At the same moment she pulls out from her house to go to her first Parliament, her two children, Mark and Susan, chase her car and beg her not to leave. The Iron Lady points out the double-strand of pearls Thatcher wears and calls, "My twins," because Dennis gave them to her after the birth of their children. It's because she was a mother to her children, the future, that she could be a mother to her country, and the wisdom the pearls symbolize, symbolizes that "double-strand" idea of one begetting the other. I can say, as a woman myself, that while Feminists consider Margret Thatcher to be an "enemy" who did little or nothing to advance women in politics, that is precisely why I adore and honor Thatcher with all my heart: it was never about being a woman, it was about doing the right thing, and that's why I like her so much.
"The perfect blend for your next tea party," the banner reads in fine print at the top of the poster, which may be a direct reference to the American political movement called the Tea Party trying to get conservative politicians back into government (since Thatcher herself was a conservative).
At the end of the film, when Thatcher has finally decided to “clean out the cupboards,” it's going back to when she was young Margaret Roberts first running for public service and she told “the big boys” that economizing in tough times  is a matter of “good housekeeping,” which she takes upon herself in doing that which is so emotionally and psychologically painful to her: removing those things to which she clings but are no longer needed. This lesson is what the film demonstrates for us that our own governments need to be doing, namely, not worrying about their careers as politicians and worrying instead on doing what is necessary to get the economy going again, and that means housekeeping.
The Falkland Islands was quite brave of Thatcher, really, because it would have been far easier to "negotiate" the return of the Islands, or tell the handful of British citizens there, "You're just a relic of Empire that is too bankrupt to come to your aid, so long!" Not only her own cabinet, but Washington opposed her in her decision to fight to get the Islands back, and those opposed to Thatcher liked to chalk it up to her militarism that she did it, rather than that it was the right thing for Britain to do.
The Iron Lady doesn't give us former Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, it doesn't give us her economic program, it doesn't give us a history lesson and it doesn't give us new insight into a meaningless relic of Cold War politics; it begins the dialogue for us with a past remarkably similar to our current situation, and provides for us well-illustrated examples of failure and success, on many levels. In many ways, the "iron lady" is Great Britain herself, but there seems to be more rust on her than usual these days, and if the lessons from Thatcher's time aren't heeded, the situation will grow worse with time. The Iron Lady is not Mrs. Thatcher living in the past, rather, it's us forgetting the past.
In the beginning of the film, Thatcher's closet is opened and it is full of blue suits and dresses (blue is the color of wisdom). It's interesting to watch the film because they do a solid job interpreting her in terms of the color of clothes she wears. When her party has started getting tired of her for "not listening," she's wearing red, not the blue she has worn up to that point, because to her party at least, she is appearing ambitious and lustful of power. The night before her party overthrows her and elects John Major (whom no one today remembers) she wears a black dress, because politically (even though the Cold War has just ended and she's in Paris celebrating it) she's dead. The return to blue, in her late years, is not the same blue as she wore in her younger years: the blue of her youth was wisdom she received from others and believed in, but the blue of old age is the wisdom of experience, her experience, and if we are wise, we will listen and learn.
Post Scriptum: If you would like to know more about the Falkland Island war, I can't think of anyone better to inform you about it than Peter and Dan Snow. Below is one of six parts on the Falkland Islands:
To watch the rest of the show, please visit 20th Century Battlefields: The Falkland Islands where the rest of the show can be watched!