I, Daniel Blake (Loach. 2016)

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Political activist, auteur and custodian of Britain’s kitchen sink, Ken Loach has reeled in a second Palme d’Or for his latest parable. A typically savage and angry comment on the inner workings of Britain’s benefits system, I, Daniel Blake is a humanist story about the reduction of people to numbers and blips on a spreadsheet in today’s world. Fuelled by the director’s trademark socialist principles and dedication to realism, it’s an efficient attack on the current Conservative government and a cry for change. It’s an emotional, topical melodrama with all the hallmarks of its esteemed director. However, one can’t help but feel this is just another nuts-and-bolts assembly for him.

Much like his 1966 classic, Cathy Come Home, the new film is a succinct story of the ordinary person being trodden on by forces beyond their control. The ordinary man in question here is a 59 year old woodworker called Dan (Dave Johns). When Dan has a heart attack, he is told he can’t work by his doctors. In the ensuing panic, he finds himself struggling through the bureaucratic mess of Britain’s welfare system. He finds himself being told wrongfully he is ‘fit for work’ by health workers, being bamboozled by countless forms and ignored by the upper echelons of the system. In his confused stagger through a broken system, he finds friendship in young mum Katie (Hayley Squires), realising that human kindness must prevail over the cold hand of the state.

And that’s always something Loach has been fond of. In the harsh world his characters are examples of the gentleness in humanity. Dan is almost insurmountably kind, good-humoured and pleasant, complemented by a solid performance from Hayley Squires, whose character’s struggle to keep afloat never overruns her drive to care for those close to her.

There are points though, when the film feels almost stiflingly ‘Loachian’. When the film begins with a dispassionate healthcare professional arguing with Dan over the phone, there’s this familiar feeling of being ushered efficiently into what is a political rally cry above all else . No doubt a lot of love, care and research has been put in, but this is Loach evoking familiar emotions through familiar methods.  For instance, he and writer Laverty reduce all characters to the usual binary of good and bad, bludgeoning the audience with the idea of the evil, gigantic government against the inherent goodness of the average Joe. Dan’s trips to the application centre depict an emotionally disconnected force of workers who lack any sense of humanity. It’s damning of the system. However, we’ve seen it all before from the creative duo.

That’s not to say that Loach’s films are not necessary and I, Daniel Blake not incredibly current and important, it’s that this sort of social realism by numbers feels to fall short of what might be possible. It’s as if Loach is the man shouting through loudspeakers at a Jeremy Corbyn rally. The messages may be powerful and their sentiments true, but the form has become a little redundant and blinding amid the noise. This social realist melodrama that the director has been doing for years is now a little archaic. The tropes are so recognisable that the impact he may want is simply not there.

I’ Daniel Blake is by all accounts, a necessary film. It’s a required dissection of a system that has ruined and will continue to ruin lives if not looked at. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that this film is a case of going through the motions, with Loach’s political voice dominating his creative voice and drowning what could be both much more innovative and impacting.

 

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Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville. 2015)

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Somewhere during BBC1’s bizarre EU referendum debate staged in a cavernous Wembley arena, you had to wonder “When did political debate require TV spectacle?” The odd shouting match with its shiny, angular stage and ginormous audience was with TV in mind. There were buzz words, huge rounds of applause and a modern, arty set that seemed to be inspired by a dropped plate. And although some may detest it, somewhere along the line political discussion like this – discussion as entertainment – became popular. It’s popular among the people who watch it and those who broadcast it. In my eyes this can be attributed to one series of live debates in 1968 USA between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.

Best of Enemies is a documentary that pin points the birth of modern American political punditry, of TV politics, and in a way, personality politics. It is an account of two of the first real public intellectual personalities, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Ideological opposites, the documentary follows their famous series of debates on ABC in August 1968. Mixing archival footage, articles, passages from books and interviews, the film follows one of the most fiery series of debates ever broadcast. The two lash out at each other viciously about the topics of the time, about presidential candidates and political parties. Most of the time, their arguments are incredibly personal.

A sublimely entertaining film directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies is humorous, pumped full of testosterone and fuelled with rage. It’s a thoroughly intelligent production as well, playing with the personalities of Vidal and Buckley and altering our perceptions of them. It puts them on pedestals, billing them as titans and starting every clip of an argument with a ringside bell from boxing. Indeed, it is hard when watching to pull yourself away from the idea of these two men being Goliath celebrities in the game that is debate. For the audience, this is similar to gladiatorial combat. Discussion comes second.

And amidst this excitement, Best of Enemies is a study of America’s raging war between left and right. While we lap up the action greedily, what’s actually being talked about is fascinating. Vidal, a liberal intellectual, brings up gay rights, questions police authority and condemns the war in Vietnam. Buckley then is the opposite – a symbol of traditional Christian and conservative America. He says Vidal’s novels are cheap pornography. Vidal says Buckley is a crypto-nazi.

It’s thrilling stuff watching such erudite men battle it out. But you can’t help but feel guilty when watching them do so. Gordon and Neville do a fantastic job at making something exhilarating and then turning it on its head with a  final segment that is a slightly sickening comment on the present.  With CNN churning out programs full of fancy graphics and loudmouth speakers like Bill O’reilly shouting down people of different opinion, debate has become sport for America. It has become about views and moments of rage. And when you watch Vidal and Buckley toughing it out, there is an underlying sense of disgust and worry. There is disgust that this sort of debate set the path for politics on TV, and anxiety for what could come next. There is also a slight questioning of one’s judgement. Did I enjoy that for the fight or for what was being fought about?

There is a part of us all that yearns for a live fist fight over a civilised discussion.