The Iron Lady

In 1996 Margaret Thatcher was the keynote speaker at the Foundation for Economic Education’s 50th anniversary banquet at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It was such a big event, and Thatcher was such a gigantic speaker, that William F. Buckley, a formidable force in conservative circles, agreed to appear as a moderator rather than as a speaker.

Buckley’s role was simply to introduce Lady Thatcher and handle questions during her presentation. He was told to keep things moving and not let the answers go on for more than a couple of minutes. Buckley took his job seriously, standing up after two minutes to gently let Mrs. Thatcher know it was time to stop talking and let him ask the next question.

But Lady Thatcher was having none of that. She had handled the members of Parliament for over 30 years; she could certainly handle William F. Buckley! A questioner asked about China; Lady Thatcher began speaking; and after two minutes, Buckley stood up. Thatcher continued speaking. Buckley edged toward the microphone. Body language shouted for Thatcher to yield.

She did not. The Iron Lady filibustered on China for several minutes. She talked about politics. She talked about industry. She talked about pandas! She spoke eloquently and intelligently, including specific names and details. She knew her stuff. Buckley stood beside her like an errant fool, until he finally backed away and sat down. Only then did Thatcher conclude her remarks on China and graciously ask, “Next question?”

She was a lady throughout. She never scowled, she never lost her temper, she never stopped speaking. But she had a spine of iron. The great William F. Buckley was put soundly in his place, with grace and good manners. And she gave the audience a jolly good show. I’ve never forgotten it.

We see none of that character and grace in “The Iron Lady,” now in theaters with more than a few whispers of another Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. Streep is indeed wonderful in the role she is playing. She shuffles with the hesitant gait of a woman in her 90s. She mimics Thatcher’s voice and cadence. She carries her unnecessary handbag with the dignity of the Queen. But she projects none of the grit, power, and philosophy that made Margaret Thatcher one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. For most of the film, her Thatcher is pathetic and befuddled.

“The Iron Lady” opens on an elderly nondescript woman shuffling through a grocery store, hesitating over whether to purchase a quart or a pint of milk. She selects the smaller container, pays the grocer her meager 49 pence, then shuffles out, bumping into other shoppers who refuse to yield for the seeming bag lady. After returning home to breakfast, she complains to her husband (Jim Broadbent) about the price of milk. This is not the prime minister who rescued England from bankruptcy; this is the grocer’s daughter who seems to live now in the projects.

Worse, it turns out that Denis Thatcher has been dead from cancer for several years. Nevertheless, he and Margaret talk to each other throughout the film. He is in her dressing room, her kitchen, her living room, her bed. She knows he is dead. She knows she is hallucinating. But she talks to him anyway. It’s natural to speak to a deceased loved one and say “I miss you” out loud. Jimmy Stewart “talks” to Martha at her graveside in “Shenandoah.” Heath Ledger poignantly breathes the smell of Jake Gyllenhal’s shirt at the end of “Brokeback Mountain.” Streep does something similar when she goes into Denis’s closet and breathes in the smells from his jacket. But she goes way beyond portraying grief. Streep’s Thatcher is bereft, bewildered, and befogged.

It is true that Mrs. Thatcher has suffered a couple of strokes in the past few years, and it may be that her mind has become befuddled. She’s 87 years old. But we do not go to a movie about Margaret Thatcher to see how sadly she has aged. Or to see how well Meryl Streep can play an aged woman. We want to see evidence of Thatcher’s iron will, her brilliant economic philosophy, her political wit and candor. We want to see her in her greatness, not her twilight.

As so often happens in Hollywood when filmmakers portray conservative heroes, the producers of this film are fascinated by their subject but unwilling to give her credit for her accomplishment. We see numerous scenes of IRA bombings and union riots. We hear voiceover about spending cuts, unemployment, and Britons’ inability to pay their mortgages. Thatcher proclaims at one point that they will need to close inefficient mines.

All this makes the film very timely, reminding the audience of current events in America: high unemployment, falling wages, mortgages in default, out-of-control deficits, and Romney’s ill-advised statement, “I love to fire people.” What’s missing is the mountain of good that was accomplished by Thatcher’s privatization policies, under which government workers were given the opportunity to own shares in the privatized utilities for which they worked.

I lived in London during the 80s. I saw the results of privatization. Allow me one personal example. When we bought our flat in 1985, we wanted to add a second phone line. We were told we would have to wait at least two years for a number to become available. We also needed some repair work done on the existing phone line, for which we were given an appointment six months in the future. Six months! We were stuck with the antiquated instrument itself. Brits could not even purchase their own equipment; everything belonged to the government utility, and the government utility was not about to update the phone.

A couple of years later, after the phone company had been privatized, I called again to have my phone repaired. A repairman was at my flat the following morning. In a few short years the company had become profitable, efficient, and prompt. Yes, some people lost their jobs, especially from the ranks of bloated, redundant management. Cutting costs does hurt in the short run. But they were offered severance packages and early retirement opportunities. In the long run, the entire citizenry profited from lower costs and better technology. The filmmakers deliberately overlook this point, and all points like it.

Instead, we see glimpses of Thatcher’s life through the eyes of a sad, confused old woman. Occasionally she reaches back into her days as the daughter of a grocer (albeit a grocer who was active in local politics), determined to “make one’s life matter,” and to her decade as prime minister. But these scenes are brief and unsatisfying. They focus mostly on her ineptness as a mother, her shrillness as a speaker, her bouffant makeover, and her problems with being accepted by Parliament.

I ask you: Would Denis have been criticized for choosing to go into politics instead of staying home to raise the children? Yet Margaret is vilified for her decision–and by a triumvirate of females, no less: woman screenwriter, woman director, woman producer. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) flounces off in anger when Margaret announces that she is going to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party, and apparently the audience is supposed to be sympathetic—to Carol! When the elderly Mrs. Thatcher looks through a box of mementoes, it is filled with hand-drawn cards and crayoned pictures that say “I love you Daddy.” None are written to “Mummy.” This hardly seems fair, especially in today’s climate of opinion. If a man isn’t criticized for leaving his family while he goes to work, why should a woman be?

Thatcher brought a unique sensibility to her role as prime minister. As she wrote in at least one letter to the parents of a soldier killed in the Falklands War: “I am the only prime minister in Britain’s history to have been a mother.” She had long-term vision, coupled with an understanding of short-term costs. She was exactly what Britain needed. She should be remembered as a woman who devoted 50 years of her life to public service. She should not be remembered as a pathetic old lady who barely knows her own name.

The young Margaret Thatcher is played winningly by Alexandra Roach. Perhaps if Roach had been prosthetically aged and allowed to play the entire role, “The Iron Lady” would have been an engaging and enlightening bio-pic similar to the very fine film “The Queen” (2006), in which Helen Mirren gives an intimate and insightful portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Instead, “The Iron Lady” is simply a vehicle for Ms. Streep to demonstrate her considerable skill at mimicry.

This is not necessarily Streep’s fault. She did not write the script. But I doubt that she bears any of the admiration for her subject that Mirren bears for hers. I’m certain that she enjoyed portraying Thatcher as the shuffling, elderly, hallucinogenic woman who was written for her to play. She will probably receive her umpteenth Oscar nomination for the role.

I just hope she never has the bad fortune to meet Lady Thatcher in public. I suspect Streep would receive a gracious, well-mannered cold shoulder that would make Buckley’s treatment at the FEE banquet look like a warm embrace. And it would be much better deserved than the Oscar nomination she is likely to receive.

“The Iron Lady,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Weinstein Productions, 2012, 105 minutes.

Margin Call

Margin Call is another offering in the growing list of movies and documentaries that attempt to explain the economic meltdown of 2007-08. This one gives an insider’s view of a giant financial institution–perhaps a Lehman Brothers, although the company is never identified– as its analysts suddenly realize that their company can no longer sustain its high levels of margin-driven debt against its falling asset values.
The film opens with a cadre of blue-suited vultures–most of them women–storming the office to let employees go. At the end of the day, nearly half of them have been fired, including middle manager Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Dale has been working out a logarithm that seems to be predicting financial catastrophe, but no one will listen as they usher him out the door. This scene is perhaps the most intense of the whole movie. Women literally tap men on the shoulder and signal for them to follow, an action reminiscent of the Rapture that will herald the beginning of Armageddon. It is hard to say which is better–to be summoned away, or to be left behind to face destruction.
As a parting gesture, Dale tosses a flash drive to his protégé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and warns him to be careful. Sullivan opens the file, and after adding a few mathematical computations of his own, discovers that the company’s net worth is less than the debts it owes. Considerably less. And with the multiplier effect caused by buying on margin, the gap will widen exponentially in a matter of days unless the markets as a whole turn around. An emergency meeting is called, with all the corporate bigwigs arriving in the middle of the night.
Here the film becomes heavy with pointed dialog intended to explain the problem to those of us in the popcorn gallery. It is not unreasonable to assume that every one of these high-powered business people in this high-powered room is a genius at math and finance. Yet CEO John Guld (Jeremy Irons), sinister in his impeccable gray suit, his impeccable British accent, and his frighteningly sharp face, threatens Sullivan, “Speak to me as you would a child, or a golden retriever.” This childlike explanation is designed for the audience’s benefit, of course, but it is almost laughable in the circumstances and reveals J. C. Chandor’s inexperience as a writer/director. He doesn’t yet know how to set up exposition believably.
What follows is intended to explain the financial meltdown in layman’s terms, but Sullivan’s explanation remains so abstract and obtuse that only someone who already understands it would be able to fill in the missing specifics in order to comprehend it. We know that the company has borrowed too much against assets that are diminishing in value, but we don’t gain any further light from having seen this movie, and we certainly don’t learn anything about how to prevent a similar meltdown.
More interesting is the ethical conversations that follow. After Guld reminds the Board of his motto of success: “Be first, be smarter, or cheat,” he adds, “I don’t cheat, and we aren’t any smarter, so we will have to be first.” This means that his brokers will have to sell all of their assets within hours of the market opening in the morning, before buyers realize that the asset values are dropping.
Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a 34-year veteran of the firm, offers the free-market answer to government regulation when he argues, “But you’ll be selling something you know is worthless. They will never buy anything from you again.” He’s right, of course. The greedy business person looks for the quick profit that comes from offering inferior quality at an inflated price, and then hurriedly moves on. But the wise business person offers good quality at a fair price, knowing that satisfied customers will provide steady gains from repeat sales for a lifetime. Cynically Guld gives the opposite view of the free market: “We’ll be selling at the ‘fair market value.’ It’s not our fault if the fair market keeps falling.” Acknowledging Sam’s point about repeat customers, he continues, “This is the big one. We have to get out all at once.”
To entice their brokers to destroy their own careers by ruining all their customer rapport and good will, the company leaders offer the brokers huge incentive packages for unloading the majority of the company’s assets by the end of the day. The brokers might not be able to get a job for a while, but with this kind of compensation, they won’t have to. Integrity can’t be bought, but it can be sold.
Karl Marx argued that those who deal in money deal in nothing. They don’t produce anything of value, and they don’t consume anything of value. They just provide a medium of exchange. Thus, in a Marxist’s view, being a salesman or stock broker is the lowest form of labor. This point comes through in the film when Dale laments, “I used to be an engineer. I built a bridge once.” He then recounts how much time and energy he has saved for all the people who have used his bridge every day for years. The implication is clear: as an employee of this financial institution, his life has been meaningless.
Sam Rogers responds in a similar fashion when Guld says derisively, “You could have been a ditchdigger” instead of a successful, wealthy financial analyst. “Yes,” Sam agrees, “but then at least there would be some holes in the ground.” Guld continues in Darwinian style, “It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than it’s ever been….You and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it….We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong.”
This cynical attitude about the role of financial institutions is continuing to drag down our economy as surely as investing on margin did. It willfully ignores the fact that financial institutions provide capital for funding those bridges and ditch-digging projects. It encourages viewers of films like this to ignore that fact too. These films continue to garner glowing praise while vilifying an economic system that allowed America to become the wealthiest, most powerful, and most generous country in the world.
For a relative newcomer (this is his first full-length feature film) Chandor managed to do several things right. He secured major funding and assembled an all-star cast that includes not only Tucci, Spacey and Irons but Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, and many others. He has garnered accolades from the mainstream critics. He has written a script that has, despite its schoolboy reliance on potty language, “gravitas.” But while it may seem “important,” it isn’t very entertaining, or very thrilling. Interesting is about as high as my praise will go. His direction is often affected and heavy handed, especially with his actresses. Wait for Margin Call to be available on Netflix.
Margin Call (2011). J. C. Chandor, director. Before the Door Pictures, 107 minutes. Rated R for language.

See The Descendants–and then hide your secrets.

Like the very fine film “Contagion,” which I reviewed earlier this year, “The Descendants” focuses on a man who must deal with the death of his wife. And, as in “Contagion,” this man discovers, after the fact, that his wife had been having an affair. The concept gives one pause: if you left the office this afternoon and didn’t make it back home, what secrets would your loved ones discover while trying to put back together the pieces of their lives? Would their memory of you be forever shadowed by some discovery that you were no longer alive to explain?

Although I would never condone an extramarital relationship, I felt sad for both of these cheating wives (especially when I read the book version of” The Descendants” by Kaui Hart Hemmings). We all wear different labels for different occasions. Yes, Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) must wear the label “Adulterer,” but she also wears the label “Mother.” And “Friend.” And “Adventurer.” And “Artist.” And “Wife.” And, apparently, “Neglected Wife.” Is it fair that “Adulterer” is the only one by which she will be remembered?

Matt King (George Clooney) seems to recognize this. He admits in voiceover narration that “before the accident we hadn’t spoken in three days. In a way, we hadn’t spoken in months.” Similarly, he acknowledges that he hasn’t spent time alone with his daughters Scottie (Amanda Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) in at least seven years. He’s a busy attorney as well as the executor of a family trust that belongs to the descendants of King Kamehameha of Hawaii. In the latter role he has the responsibility of deciding what to do with a huge parcel of undeveloped land on Kauai before the trust is dissolved in seven years. While his wife lies in a coma, he is trying to decide which of several development offers to accept. This family trust provides a backdrop and metaphor for the family drama unfolding in the foreground.

When Matt discovers—from teenaged Alexandra, no less—that Elizabeth had been cheating on him, he decides to track down her paramour. Not to punch him, mind you, although that thought brings a smile to Matt’s face. Somehow he is able to feel enough love and compassion, and perhaps even guilt, to give his wife and her lover the opportunity to say goodbye. The journey to find the lover becomes, in a sense, a journey for Matt to find himself and, in the process, to change his own label to “Father.”
As he surveys the land that is owned jointly by his cousins, Matt muses, “We didn’t do anything to own this land—it was just entrusted to us.” In a way, this is true of families as well. We fall in love, we get married, and children show up. We don’t do anything to prove that we are ready for them. We don’t have a training manual to raise them. But they are entrusted to us nevertheless. Matt goes on to note about the land trust, “We were expected to protect this land. I have seven years left to figure out how to keep it.” His family is like that, too. He is already a father genetically; he has about seven years left to become a father in fact.

Set in Hawaii, “The Descendants” provides a rustic glimpse of the close-knit, laid-back life of the native Hawaiians who aren’t really all that “native”—many of them are blonde and blue-eyed. One can almost smell the frangipani in the background and feel the warm sidewalks under their bare feet. The art on the walls of the various homes is also uniquely Hawaiian, creating a visual luau of colors and designs. It is a lovely film in every respect.

As is usually the case, however, the novel on which the film is based has more depth than the screenplay. Film adaptations always have to take shortcuts to fit the story inside the movie’s limited time structure, and character development often suffers in the process. While “The Descendants” is a good film, I missed the nuances that come out in the book, where we see more of Elizabeth, her background, her motivation, and the joy and tragedy of her life than we do in the film.

Several years ago, some new acquaintances told me their “how we met” story. John had been married to Mary’s sister Kathleen, and when Kathleen contracted cancer, Mary came to help nurse her and take care of their children. On the way home from Kathleen’s funeral, one of the children volunteered from the backseat, “Aunt Mary, can you be our new mommy?” And that is what happened. John and Mary thought this was a wonderfully happy and romantic story. From their perspective it is. But my heart went out to Kathleen. On the way home from her funeral? They couldn’t mourn her and let her be the mommy for just a little while longer?

I thought of that story as I watched Matt become a father to his daughters. After the doctor tells Matt that there isn’t any hope for Elizabeth’s recovery, Matt says to 10-year-old Scottie, “We’re letting Mom go tomorrow.” He says it matter-of-factly, almost as he might say, “We’re letting the maid go” or “We’re letting the gardener go.” The Neglected Wife became the Adulterer, and “Mother” is erased from her resume. I was happy for Matt and his daughters to have rekindled their bond. But my heart ached for Elizabeth. It made me want to go home and give up all my secrets.

“The Descendants,” directed by Alexander Payne. Fox Searchlight – ad hominem enterprises, 2011, 115 minutes.