The old aphorism is that all politics is local, but Meryl Streep – in a performance remarkable even for Meryl Streep – demonstrates that politics is personal, a reflection of the character of the person involved in it.
The Iron Lady begins with an elderly and frail Thatcher, unrecognized as she shops in a small grocery store, and periodically circles back to portray the career of the grocer’s daughter who changed the world, with the film always returning to Thatcher in the present, alone in the world. Perhaps the movie is intended as a slight to Thatcher – see, look at her now. Perhaps it is making a less tendentious point – power is ephemeral, we are all headed toward a lonely end. But almost in spite of itself, the film shows a deeper truth: the person may fade, but the accomplishments of character endure.
In her brilliant reflection on what Thatcher accomplished, “There is No Alternative” – Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, Claire Berlinski writes that “Margaret Thatcher often seemed like an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of Margaret Thatcher.” If so, The Iron Lady reflects an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of a lifetime. Thatcher was character in motion; Streep plays a character who exemplified character. It is an exhilarating performance. But the truth is even more amazing.
In 1979, the year Thatcher came to power, Western countries were struggling with crippling stagflation; they were burdened with oil prices that had quadrupled since 1973 and high levels of taxation; Soviet and Chinese proxies had expelled the United States from Vietnam, overthrown governments in Latin America, seized power in multiple countries in Africa and the Arabian peninsula; American diplomats were held hostage in Iran, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a possible prelude to a further move into Saudi Arabia. Jimmy Carter’s responses were a malaise speech, a warning against “our inordinate fear of Communism,” and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
In Britain, the social and economic situation was especially dire. Unemployment was high and inflation out of control; people felt society was breaking down; the economy was controlled by unions, strikes were rampant, the currency had been devalued, public services were shabby, taxes were confiscatory, per capita income was half that of the countries Britain had saved or defeated in World War II. It was, as Thatcher had said in a 1976 speech, “close to midnight.”