Darkest Hour

Taking on a recent figure, one for whom we have film footage and recordings is hazardous duty.  How can you live up to the reality?  In recent years we have seen spot on impersonations of Ray Charles and Truman Capote.  Those were risky performances that resulted in triumphs.

The risk is especially dire when the subject is a key figure in history.  I’ve talked about this before in my review of Lincoln.  Is it wise to humanize our heroes, to show that they were people with flaws who rose to the occasion, rather than beings of godlike perfection sent by some divine power to save us?

Gary Oldman is probably not the first choice of many people when it comes to casting the role of Winston Churchill.  Of course anybody can do an impression of Churchill that is good enough for people to recognize who it is supposed to be.  But physically Oldman looks nothing like Britain’s great wartime prime minister.  Oldman is thin and has a nice head of hair.  I don’t think it’s disrespectful to point out that Churchill was portly and bald.  I noticed at the end of the film that there was a credit for Oldman’s personal make-up and prosthetic supervisor, so clearly a lot of effort went into making him look like Churchill.  Oldman’s tremendous acting ability does the rest.

Darkest Hour is set during the early days of Churchill’s ascendance to the prime minister’s office, when not everybody was convinced that he was the man for the job.  He was sixty-six at the time, no longer young, and his over-fondness for scotch and cigars was well known.  Churchill’s previous record in public service was somewhat spotty.  I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that he was largely blamed for the debacle of Gallipoli in the First World War.  What’s more the deal that brought him to the office also required him to appoint Neville Chamberlin, the previous PM, played by Ronald Pickup, and his political ally Viscount Halifax, played by Stephen Dillane, to the War Cabinet.

Churchill’s first crisis is Dunkirk, a stern test by any standard.  Chamberlin and Halifax exert considerable pressure to negotiate with the Nazis who seem invincible at this point.  But Churchill was one of the first to see Hitler’s true nature and he knew the German Chancellor would not be satisfied with France.  Indeed, Churchill, who knew his history, was one of the first to discern Hitler’s true nature and had been clamoring for Britain to re-arm since the thirties.  In his mind fighting was the only option.

But he was unsure that he could convince the War Cabinet to fight.  Even the King, George VI seemed to be on Halifax’s side of the issue.  Thus this was not only Britain’s darkest hour; it was also Winston Churchill’s.

Oldman shows us vulnerability and self-doubt that we usually don’t associate with Churchill.  That makes it somewhat jarring.  We see him as befuddled at the first few strategy sessions.  He’s slow to understand the German’s new mode of warfare.  When he meets with the French leadership they come away from the summit convinced he is delusional.  There are accusations of alcoholism and incompetence.

And the movie does not imply that this is a ploy of some kind, intended to get his enemies to underestimate him.  He genuinely goes through a dark night of the soul.  Churchill doubts himself for a few weeks before he becomes re-convinced of the necessity to fight the Nazis.

There is no question that Darkest Hour is one of the best movies of the year, with one of the greatest performances at the heart of it.  How true is it to reality?  I don’t know.  Will it be disturbing to people to see one of the greatest heroes of the last century portrayed as a flawed and uncertain man?  Probably for some.  But I happen to think that it is a courageous thing to go forward knowing that you are vulnerable and that victory is not assured.

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