I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016, Great Britain)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 92% Certified Fresh

PLOT: After surviving a heart attack, a 59-year-old carpenter fights bureaucratic rules and regulations to receive Employment and Support Allowance from the British government.

I, Daniel Blake made me mad.  Not because it’s a bad film – it’s a SENSATIONAL film, as a matter of fact.  Not because I didn’t like the characters or the story or the direction…everything is top-notch.  What made me mad was the gross injustices on display from an uncaring, monolithic government agency whose sole aim appears to be to discourage the very people it’s supposed to be helping from applying for help in the first place.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a middle-aged carpenter who has suffered a heart attack and been told by his doctors that he should not go back to work.  For a while, he receives the Employment and Support Allowance from the British government, but after one of his physicals, the Employment office deems him fit for work, directly contradicting his doctor’s orders.  So now, with no other means of financial support, Daniel must prove that he’s looking for work, even though he can’t go back to work, to satisfy the Employment agency’s requirements.

The amount of bureaucratic run-around on display in this movie is stunningly awful, even more so because it has the ring of authenticity.  The end credits of the film send a special thanks to workers within the appropriate governmental departments who provided “invaluable information, but who must remain anonymous.”  It is literally illegal for employees or even ex-employees to speak publicly about employment assistance.  Really?!

For Daniel, the internet is a foreign country, a foreign planet.  Faced with a mouse for the first time in his life, he holds it up to the computer screen to move the cursor.  But these agencies are converting to “digital by default.”  So, learn he must.  On one of his many trips to a local job center, an employee takes pity on him and starts walking him through the online registration process.  She doesn’t get very far before her supervisor calls her into an office to reprimand her for providing extra help to applicants.  (“You don’t want to set a precedent for these people…”)  Despicable.

The horror-story nature of his predicament is tempered by his encounter with a single mother of two, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is going through a horror story of her own.  Late to a meeting because of getting on the wrong bus in an unfamiliar city, she is informed her employment assistance cannot be extended without an appeal.  Katie is in dire straits, but she is a master at keeping her stress hidden from her children.  Daniel and Katie’s friendship provides much-needed moments of warmth during this otherwise chilling cautionary tale.

Ken Loach directs I, Daniel Blake with a calmness that belies the anger at its core.  It feels like a documentary, much like the Paul Greengrass films Bloody Sunday and United 93, but with fewer stylistic fireworks.  There are no “shaky-cam” shots following the main characters, no camera zooms, no gimmickry of any kind.  There is some movement, but it’s kept to a minimum.  The focus is always on the story.  That simplicity is a big part of what makes this film immensely more powerful than many other similar films that rail against corporate bureaucracies.  (I’d name examples, but you get the idea, I think.)

When the film ended, I wanted to throw something.  I had flashbacks to those first early months of the Covid shutdown in 2020.  I was indefinitely “furloughed” from my job and was forced to go online and navigate the notorious Florida Unemployment website.  I once had to make a call to the main line.  I stayed on hold for three – count them – three hours…only to hear a recorded message tell me they were unable to speak to me and to call again later.

At one point, Daniel receives a notice in the mail that his support is being cut off.  He makes a call so he can file an appeal.  After waiting on hold for 90 minutes, the person on the other end tells Daniel he should have gotten a call from the “decision maker.”  Daniel received no such call.  “Well, you should have gotten the call before you got the letter.”  Daniel asks if he can speak to the decision maker anyway.  “Sorry, I can’t transfer you until he’s called you about the letter.”  But he’s already GOTTEN the letter!  I empathized with poor Daniel to such a degree that it was almost painful to watch.

I seem to be simply rehashing the plot.  The effect I, Daniel Blake had on me is hard to put into words.  It’s so well-made, so well-written, so sharply observant of human behavior and the coldness of a government bureaucracy more intent on process than on actual assistance.  I really felt as if Daniel and Katie were real people.  I smiled when Daniel slyly gives Katie £20 to help pay for the electric.  I shook my head in sorrow when Katie gives in to desperation and shoplifts.  I smiled again when Daniel takes a can of black spray paint to the walls of the Employment Office.  And when the end of the film rolled around…well.  I was right there with them, emotionally, when it happened.  You can’t ask for better filmmaking than that.

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