Sunday, March 17, 2013

Film Review: The Spirit of '45 (Ken Loach) 2013

The Spirit of '45
After just returning from a multi-cinema simultaneous exhibition of the new Ken Loach Documentary I feel like I have just experienced two very different films:  One was a nostalgic documentary about the post-war period that was made mostly of stock footage and interviews, and the other was a socialist party political broadcast making the historical case that Clement Attlee has been unfairly forgotten and Margaret Thatcher is the source of all of our contemporary social problems (from drugs to ipods!).

The documentary is shot in black and white to match the stock footage of the time, and the narrative such as there is in a factual film, is played out chronologically and split into two chapters.  The film starts with the nightmare of the 1930s poverty and unemployment before introducing the key players that helped the economic reprise of the ‘40s: Prime Minister Clement Atlee and Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the NHS.  These two men are shown as visionaries reacting against the tyrannical status-quo of Winston Churchill and the conservative party.  The film then has a crucial turning point as Thatcher arrives (to boos on and off screen) and the utopian ideals of the Marxists gives way to the corporate, brutal isolation of the Neoliberals.  As this crescendo rises and falls the focus of the film moves from the NHS to include the mining industry, the railways, the utilities (gas, electric and water) and Royal Mail.

The film is undeniably coherent in providing a socialist narrative of the last 70 years:  World War II left the nation economically exhausted, so the spirit of the people and the infrastructure that existed to serve the war effort was nationalised to create an efficient manufacturing industry capable of creating enviable employment levels and serving exports to Europe and elsewhere.  Meanwhile, standards of living improved and workers got better representation in the workforce, but not exactly ownership of the means of production.  This lasted until Maggie came along and systematically dismantled this infrastructure in order to create a more ‘free’ society that encouraged private ownership and entrepreneurism.  Cue footage of lots of smug looking bankers to be demonised.  I imagine that the people who got upset at Danny Boyle for his ‘radical-leftist’ Olympic games opening ceremony would explode with rage when watching this film.

Yet I basically believe in that narrative and did so before seeing this film.  I believe that the state has been fundamentally changed since Thatcher’s premiership, and although I am not part of a working-class labour movement, I believe that workers should benefit from higher standards of employment and a large social safety net.  Everyone in the cinema with me seemed to believe that, and did so before they entered the room.  So who is this film for…?  The problem to me is that the only people who are going to go and see a black and white postwar documentary (with a Q&A with the director) on a Sunday afternoon already believe this narrative.

I praise Loach for what he is doing, and I feel that it could be an important film.  I also dislike the current crop of Conservatives for their misdirection (and the current Labour party have no link at all to ‘The Spirit of ‘45’) and can only wish that some of them would sit down and watch this film just to hear them defend their policies in the face of it.  I also wish that there were more of an appetite for films like this outside of the (albeit well-meaning) left-wing middle-class bubble – but maybe I watched it at the wrong cinema…

Lets just hope that the Marxist Radicals at the BBC air it one day (Christmas?!) and then everyone who reads the Daily Express will collectively lose their minds at the sight of governments trying to look after people and pay them fairly...

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