The Navigators

09/12/2010

U.K. / 2001 / English

Directed by Ken Loach

With Joe Duttine, Thomas Craig, Venn Tracey

Still from 'The Navigators'When we meet Paul, a repairman for the British railway system, he is divorced and sleeping on the couch of Mick, his friend and coworker at East Midlands Infrastructure. He has two young daughters and a wife who won’t even open the door when he comes round to visit. He and his fellow employees show up to work one day and are informed that British Rail, once centralized and run by the government, has become privatized, and that now they all work for a corporation. At first the news seems innocuous; the sign outside the workplace gets changed a couple of times, and the men joke about the new company policies that mean little to them. A few workers on loan from a different branch are forced to leave because they are now part of a rival company.

Work becomes uneven, uncertain, and often pointless. Jobs that had been in progress get stopped because they no longer have enough men or have had some of the necessary tools taken away. The men’s supervisor instructs them to smash up a lot of the old equipment, which, while perfectly good, no longer conforms to the fierce standards of modernity. In the new work environment, any semblance of a union is abandoned, and any preexisting agreements with the bosses are rescinded, to “wipe the slate clean,” as the new managing director puts it. After a round of lay-offs and walk-offs, only a handful of workers stay on at what was once a vibrant depot.

Paul and another worker, John, resign quite vociferously, to try their luck elsewhere, and seemingly just in time; the remaining few are informed that their workplace will soon close down due to lack of productivity. So they are caught in a strange and boring limbo, which lasts three months, when they have to show up to work everyday but there is no actual work to be done since everyone else is gone. One of them, Gerry, a veteran rail worker, uses his time defeating himself at chess.

The ones who got out in time disperse to various private agencies that contract out jobs. New projects are piecemeal and shoddy, without the standards of safety and common sense that governed their work under a nationalized system. Competition, quotas, and economic priority has replaced structure. Paul and his friends are called to the scene of a derailment to make a safety evaluation, but they can’t find anyone who appears to be in charge, and besides everyone on site is talking on a cell phone, caught up in an endless line of prattle that has supplanted the real, cross-network communication that previously helped things run.

Put in a sink or swim situation, they find themselves having to make career choices (which for most is a foreign notion), put up with practices they know are wrong, and relinquish the individual agency they had under the old system. The collective voice falls away too, as close-knit partnership gets dissembled as individual enterprise becomes the only way to survive. An old hand whom everyone thought had retired comes back to them boasting of the lucrative jobs he has found since leaving the depot he had worked at for thirty years.

Still from 'The Navigators'The frustration that Paul experiences as a free agent, outside the shelter to which he had been accustomed, is connected to his personal life as well. Having just asked out the secretary at his work, Fiona, he is trying to enjoy bachelorhood, but is bogged down by several limitations. Firstly he has to start paying additional child support, and only gets to see his kids when his wife hesitantly hands them off to him. The money gets even tighter as the work gets sparser, making the possibility of getting his own place even more distant, while his presence frays the nerves of the compassionate Mick and his wife. Mick’s situation has gotten worse as well, since he gets put on jobs that are unsafe, and when he confronts his supervisors on these points, he gets marked as a troublemaker, and thus loses out on potential employment for the future.

Set in 1995, during the period when the railway industry was transitioning into privatization, The Navigators decries capitalist advances on collective bargaining and the fundamental tenets of honest work, a condemnation made all the more compelling by the film’s relaxed, mundane naturalism. Director Loach skirts the boundaries of predictable proselytizing, and his manner is so matter-of-fact, his presentation so close to documentary, it feels as though he is setting his sights too low for the issues that he brings up. But of course his sights are in just the right place, being at eye level. He and screenwriter Rob Dawber share a keen ear for the dialogue and dispositions of blue-collar people at work. Humor, both wry and ribald, never abates among the characters, nor does good nature or thoughtfulness, even as things start to get grim. This is how, in all of his films, he champions the working class, by not putting them on a pedestal or stereotyping them, keeping things personal and low-key.

The film’s final and lasting impression has to do with the workers’ reluctance to speak up against the abuses that are occurring in their new work environment (and thereby potentially affect some social change) for fear of having the meager and haphazard employment, which they have so far held onto, taken away. Their unwillingness to see anything beyond their immediate prospects does not reflect their personal limitations, but on the structural factors that impose a degree of self-interest in order to keep the poor from rocking the boat. Loach, as is often the case in his films, looks at the big picture by way of the smaller stories that form its mosaic – showing one struggle, but thinking about the many.

Still from 'The Navigators'He effectively compares the lack of safety with which the workers now have to contend to the insecurity of the job market into which they have been unceremoniously thrust, and to the damaged friendships and bitter vulnerability that are the prizes of free market competition. At the same time he is commenting on the fragility of the concessions that the workers have won in the past and their relationships with the bosses, which erode quickly once new management comes in. While such pitfalls exist in many other spheres of work, in the public sector and otherwise, depicting the lives of men working on the railroad is a particularly illustrative to discuss them; the trains that they guide by laying down tracks move through with cold and indifferent force, conveying the people and goods of capitalist society, unconcerned with who or what gets swept aside. Unseen but integral, the men on the tracks rely on close cooperation to keep one another out of danger, and answer to equally obscure authorities and the whims of a changing state. The resulting story is naturalistic, empathetic, and moving. There is little question that they will experience further changes on their thankless march through the life of the downtrodden.

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