This article was first published at TheNation.com on January 4, 2012.
The Iron Lady just opened in London where, let’s hope, it generates some serious critique. The critical silence in the United States has been astounding, only made worse by the praise, not just for the film but for its subject, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played in the movie by Meryl Streep.
Newsweek’s holiday double issue slapped Streep as Thatcher on its cover, hailing “The New Thatcher Era.” The feature story in summary reads: “Margaret Thatcher was the infamous Iron Lady the Brits love to hate. This month’s bio starring Meryl Streep proves she was right all along.”
Streep’s already winning awards and accolades, and Oscars are probably on the way. People are saying the film’s no whitewash because it shows the former Prime Minister in her dotage, fighting dementia—three decades after she came to power. Director Phyllida Lloyd has described the treatment as operatic. Streep’s called it revealing. The two collaborated before on the musical Mamma Mia! The truth is, in Lloyd’s hands Thatcher’s iron isn’t just rusty, it’s melted down and depoliticized, made feminist enough to root for and ultimately sad enough for some to sniffle at. The Iron Lady is Thatcher—The ABBA Version. It’s the last thing we need, ever, and especially at this point.
Think of Thatcher and I think of hungry people. Irish hunger strikers, first of all, ten of whom starved to death for status as political prisoners on her watch. Thatcher insisted anti-government rebels in Afghanistan were “resistance fighters,” not terrorists, but it was a different story for the Irish. Indeed, in Thatcher’s time, there was to be no story, no effort to understand the reasons for the conflict in Northern Ireland; certainly there was to be no discussion or consideration in public of why anyone might pick up a gun, or place a bomb or starve themselves to death.
Long before the USA Patriot Act and the 9/11 demonization of asking “why,” Britons were starved of information about the so-called “troubles.” Under an ever-expanding Prevention of Terrorism Act, British journalists were forced to report to police any contact with any “known or suspected terrorist.” Irish parties to the conflict were banned from speaking on radio and TV, yet Thatcher’s government could tell the public any lie it liked. When British secret service snipers shot and killed three unarmed IRA members (two men and a woman, Mairead Farrell) on the island of Gibraltar in 1988, Thatcher’s government released an official story about crossfire and a gun fight and a bomb planted near an old people’s home. Video footage of an impressive little military robot supposedly defusing an incendiary device played on the evening news. It was all a crock. Lloyd’s film shows the IRA’s bombings and bloodshed but not the denial and the deadly government tactics, which likely delayed peace talks for a decade.