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You don't have to admire the political record of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to appreciate Meryl Streep's virtuoso acting performance in "The Iron Lady." Rarely has such an instantly identifiable movie star disappeared so completely into a role.

The film presents a Thatcher long past her prime: retired from public life, grappling with dementia, struggling to determine if the husband with whom she so affectionately bickers (played beautifully by Jim Broadbent) is real or just a ghost. Only through a series of flashbacks -- or are they sense memories? -- do we see the ornery warrior who launched battalions, crushed unions, and shrugged off the deaths of 10 Irish Republican hunger strikers.

"The Iron Lady" has drawn fire from critics who say it glosses over Thatcher's historical record, presenting her as a sympathetically dotty old-timer instead of a driven and (the assumption goes) dangerous ideologue, so I asked Meryl Streep how portraying the divisive leader has changed her view of the real Lady Thatcher -- and whether, having embodied a politician famous for her backbone, she had any advice for the occasionally wishy-washy Barack Obama. She pointed out that Thatcher's views on subjects like abortion and gay rights were more nuanced than some people realize: "She would be drummed out of the American conservative party -- there would be no question."

Here's how our conversation went.