The Magazine


Dec 15, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 14 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
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Remember when Pat Buchanan "discovered" unemployment in New Hampshire during the 1992 presidential campaign? And shocked George Bush and the political press by flirting with 40 percent of the GOP primary vote? Outside shuttered shoe factories in the snow, he suddenly understood the political blind spot among cocooned journalists and free-trade intellectuals -- both liberal and conservative -- back in Washington. In a governmental capital that manufactures nothing heavier than hot air, many seldom if ever encountered discarded assembly-line workers. The cultural elitism of limousine liberals was matched by the technical elitism of limousine laissez- fairistes.

Being Pat Buchanan, he overstated his case at the time (even some journalists and intellectuals felt job insecurity during that most white- collar of recessions), but he had a point. Too many in Washington, cloistered from the local aftershocks of rapid technological change and capital flight, forget that unemployment, even temporary, is hell.

And they keep forgetting. The biggest surprise of this fall's political season was the failure of President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich to gain congressional approval of " fast-track" trade authority, which would have allowed the president to negotiate trade pacts that cannot be rewritten by Congress. Beltway journalists, pundits, and free-market mandarins underestimated the grass- roots fear and anger provoked by fast track.

Coincidentally or not, the biggest surprise of the fall movie season has been The Full Monty, a bittersweet tale of British steelworkers left for scrap when their steel mill in England's blighted industrial north shuts down. Those mandarins surprised by the failure of fast track might want to catch up with this word-of-mouth British movie smash. Sometimes it takes an imported movie with a cast speaking barely recognizable English to explain the pockets of dread and distress scattered through their own backyards.

Rich in serious themes handled with the deftest of comic touches, The Full Monty has surpassed Four Weddings and a Funeral in England as the top-grossing British movie ever -- and become a very profitable film. Made for $ 3.5 million, it has grossed more than $ 133 million worldwide, $ 31 million of that in America. And that's before a planned Oscar promotional blitz for the film, directed by Peter Cattaneo and written by Simon Beaufoy. Not bad for six welders and a funeral for British heavy industry.

When the steel mill in deindustrializing Sheffield shuts down, Gaz and his newly unemployed mates learn that losing a job means losing more than a paycheck. Gaz, unable to maintain child-support payments to his ex-wife, faces the loss of visitation rights to his son. His overweight friend Dave becomes impotent.

Plant foreman Gerald exudes pride in his petit-bourgeois superiority to the working class boys on the shop floor. He confronts unemployment with such a stiff upper lip that he is unable to tell his wife the bad news -- for six months.

Scrawny, pale, red-headed Lomper is jobless, friendless, and suicidal. In a conversation with Gaz and Dave -- characteristic of the movie's feeling for the comedy in despair -- he eliminates possible methods of suicide one by one. Jump off a bridge? Nope, afraid of heights. Drowning? Can't swim. Okay, proposes Dave, just have a mate run you over with his car. Haven't got a mate, Lomper objects. "I'd mow you down sooner than look atcha," offers Dave.

In a city where the working-class ideal of masculinity is dying along with the steel industry, the women are flocking to a nightclub offering a travesty of masculinity, a revue of Chippendale-style male strippers. At first, Gaz is contemptuous of the spectacle: "Some poof gettin' his kit off." Then he learns the revue's nightly take is ten thousand pounds. Soon he is assembling his own chorus line of male strippers out of Sheffield's reserve army of the unemployed.

One problem: Gaz and his friends aren't built like Chippendale dancers. Okay, two problems: They can't dance either -- except for the man named Horse, who knows the Funky Chicken but has a "dodgy hip." If they want to top the sculpted pros, they'll have to go "the full monty" (British for " the whole nine yards"). In other words, they will have to bare all -- caboodle and kit too. In a way, they have learned Adam Smith's secret of comparative advantage. (While there are some rear-view shots of male caboodle, this is not Boogie Nights; the kits are left to the imagination.)