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April 8, 2013 at 11:00 AM

The Hollywoodizing of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher’s death reminds me of my dissatisfaction with the movie about her, “Iron Lady.” The acting by Meryl Streep, above, was superb. But when I see a film about an historical figure, I want to be shown what that person did – why he or she was important. The 2012 movie “Lincoln” shows Abraham Lincoln’s push to end slavery. The 2007 movie “Elizabeth The Golden Age” showed Queen Elizabeth I struggle to defend England against Spain. There were personal things in both productions, and history was Hollywoodized (particularly for Elizabeth), but the viewer still got a strong sense of the subject’s historical role.

Margaret Thatcher’s importance, as I understand it, is that she broke the British unions’ power over the U.K. government. Americans don’t have a good sense of this; the closest the United States ever got to union power of this magnitude was in 1946-1952, in the heyday of  Harry Truman and John L. Lewis. That was a lesser experience than Britain’s. In Britain in the 1970s, the coal, rail and steel industries were owned by the  government. There is a  political complexion to striking against the government, and in 1970s Britain, it was usually against a government controlled by the unions’ own party. Thatcher broke that up. She privatized coal, steel, telecommunications, etc. She changed Britain. That is her significance, and it is almost entirely missing from the movie.

“The Iron Lady” makes a big deal about her being a woman, which is part of the story. It makes a big thing out of her spirit of achievement — but to achieve what? Beating Argentina in the Falkland Islands? That was dramatic, but in the end, not important. Negotiating with Deng Xiaoping over Hong Kong was much more important.

The other problem with the movie is that it is told as flashbacks from a retired Thatcher suffering from dementia. Look at the trailer above: There is nothing in it about dementia. Then see the movie. Dementia dominates it. For Streep, it was an opportunity to act; it was as if the movie were made for her rather than the audience. The audience needed to know why this woman mattered. Because she did matter.

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