Friday Distraction: The Iron Lady

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 24 2012 3:20 PM

Friday Distraction: The Iron Lady

"The personal is political" -- good slogan for feminism, horrible operating principles for movie-makers. According to The Iron Lady, Margearet Thatcher's conquest of British politics was an unsatisfying way to get past her childhood drudgery. Sometimes, the girl who gets laughed at by the Heathers shows them up by being prom queen. Here, she shows them up by sinking the Belgrano.

Fine. Perhaps a biopic about Margaret Thatcher's politics would never work as a movie. There's an audience for an extended look at Keith Joseph's intellectual circle, and the internal meetings that steeled Thatcher for her victory over Arthur Scargill. The audience could fit in my living room. But come on: The dry story I'm describing would be accurate. And the team that adapted Thatcher's life for this movie seem to realize that. In The Social Network, the problem of Mark Zuckerberg's low-stress love life was fixed when Aaron Sorkin created a fake estranged girlfriend for his lead. In The Iron Lady, Thatcher's very satisfying life with her husband Denis is mined for... well, not for much. The truly odd and possibly revealing story of her son Mark -- he tried to pull off a coup in Equitorial Guinea! -- is completely ignored.

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Does anything work? Not really as a political story, no. Thatcher's career is boiled down to a few scenes in which she's either the unfair aggressor or the seething victim. The best of these scenes is the campiest one. Thatcher is confronted by dithering cabinet ministers (including a wasted Richard E. Grant as Michael Heseltine), right before she leaves for a gala dinner. She dresses them down as simps while a handmaiden pins up her dress, her cleavage getting harder and harder to ignore. Pretty stupid, but pretty funny.

A non-camp Thatcher film could be made. You'd probably want to pick one period of her career -- the Falklands or the miner's struggle, or her 1990 downfall, maybe -- and explore her character through that. You'd have time to explain the politics. Thatcher didn't approach reform as a wronged feminist. She approached them as a Hayekian. That would be a story and a philosophy worth exploring in the Age of Austerity.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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