Movie Review: Darkest Hour (2017)
For a movie that agonizes over a decision that is now obvious to everyone (Nazi Germany: fight/not fight?), “Darkest Hour,” written by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”), and starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, manages to be thrilling. It’s one of the few 2017 movies I saw where the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end.
Which makes sense. Other cinematic heroes may have the weight of the world on their shoulders, but here it’s actually true.
Unfortunately, McCarten and Wright do fudge the history a bit.
What’re we waitin’ fer?
Question: Does this fudging make the story more dramatic—or less so?
Do we need Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, this year’s crush), starting her job with the famously irascible and demanding man on the same day he is named Prime Minister, which also happens to be the same day Nazi Germany launched its war against Western Europe and threatened to end fucking everything? Aren’t these last two historical facts enough? Do we have to bump up Layton’s employment by a year? And why is Layton forever in the wings mouthing the words Churchill speaks—as if she were Ray Sharkey in “The Idolmaker”? Is the movie implying Churchill needs help? Is this supposed to be another endearing quality of Layton’s? Do we really need more to endear us to Lily James?
And what about that transatlantic phone call between a hemmed-in Churchill and a blasé Roosevelt? For all the faults of America, and the internal battles with America Firsters, FDR was never blasé about Europe. And that transatlantic hotline didn’t go up until 1943. (That said, it is a wrenching scene.)
But what we definitely don't need? That ride in the tube. Good god. It’s not only bullshit, it feels like bullshit. Worse, it doesn’t even make sense dramatically. Churchill has just been visited by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, stellar), who, previously, had kept his distance from the new PM. He hadn’t liked him much. He thought he was the wrong man for the role. But now, staring into the abyss, finally angry at the spot England is in, he allies with his PM. Meaning Winston has been given royal prerogative to fight. Meaning it’s like that scene in “Rocky II” when Adrian wakes up from her coma and tells Rocky to “win”! But instead of Mickey yelling, “What’re we waitin’ fer!” followed by a training montage to Bill Conti’s uplifting theme music, it’s like Rocky wanders down to the Italian Market and says, “I don’t know, what do youse think?” No! Go to Parliament, Winston! Go to your war cabinet. Win! V for fucking victory already!
I keep going back to that line from “The Insider”: Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure. That's all you need. It’s about the isolation and the stakes. It’s about one man seeing the horrific future (if we don’t act) while everyone around him sees the tragic past (where acting led to horror). It’s about the leader being as trapped in the halls of government as any soldier on the beaches of Dunkirk.
Plus the person here isn't ordinary; and the pressure is beyond extraordinary.
We all want to change the world
Wright has maybe too many overhead flourishes, as if anticipating the blitz, but I like how he teases the intro of our hero: much talked-about before seen, as with Rick in “Casablanca.”
Oldman is great, yes. At times, I was reminded of Ned Beatty, at times I saw Gary Oldman in the eyes, but mostly it was like Churchill brought to life. The great man was 65 in May 1940, and between the booze and the cigars and the mumblings, Oldman sometimes makes him seem like an old 65. Watching, you’d be astonished to learn he lived another quarter century. He lived to see John Winston Lennon (b., Oct. 1940) and the Beatles take over the world.
The movie’s true value is putting us in the midst of the debate before history takes over; when the would-be disastrous decision seems, for a sad second, faintly reasonable. But I worry. Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation has been used to justify every war since—as if every two-bit tyrant were Hitler. That shouldn’t be the lesson people take from “Darkest Hour”...but they will.