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The Navigators

Off the rails

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Director Ken Loach, a chronicler of the working man for over three decades (Bread and Roses, Riff Raff), sets his lens on a group of Yorkshire railway workers in 1995. British Rail has been privatized, and this maintenance crew informed that they are now independent contractors, obligated to "serve the customer." The men laugh about the awkwardly worded changes, but the joke will soon be on them -- job security under the paternal wing of a large employer is a thing of the past.

A group of mates sticks it out, confident work will be available to experienced men. When jobs go to crews of temporary workers, John (Dean Andrews), Mick (Tom Craig), Paul (Joe Duttine) and Jim (Steve Huison) quit to join the temps. Only their union rep Gerry (Vern Tracey) remains, out of some bruised sense of loyalty. There's no great crashing moment when it all goes wrong: There's a memo here, and change in management there. Little by little, the job ebbs away, and with it go the men, their community born of shared work, their home lives, their dignity and self-respect.

Loach worked from a script by first-time screenwriter Rob Dawber, who spent 18 years with British Rail in the Signaling and Telecommunication department, right through privatization. Dawber has a good ear for natural dialogue, much of it funny. When the bemused workers query their supervisor about what a mission statement is, he replies with all the mustered self-importance of someone who has no idea: "That's where we say what we're gonna do. Then, we go and do it."

Yet behind such smiles are the bitter absurdities of contemporary management. When every man becomes a subcontractor, it seems that the janitor must supply his own mop. Likewise the film has a keen grasp of tiny sad moments, as when the middle-aged laborer at the job-placement center, uncomfortable with the new double-speak of the current workplace, cites his teen-age Boy Scouts involvement, cautiously hopeful that it might show "leadership skills."

The lack of melodramatic narrative and the emphasis on the group, over perhaps more deeply drawn individual stories, inhibits some of the emotional impact of The Navigators, but it serves to remind us how sustaining work and the "work family" can be. Loach, who often makes broader points in smaller strokes, presents these workers as emblematic of the compromises he clearly feels the new global economies impose on workers once raised to expect fairness. It's never clear what these railway men in The Navigators do exactly, except that it's hard, outdoors, even dangerous manual labor. But, when the film has run its course, it's apparent their story could pretty much stand in for Any Job, Any Place, Right Now.


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