Reel Dad: Darkest Hour celebrates Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill is hot again.
In the past year, he has been essential to the first season of The Crown on Netflix as well as the star of two feature films. While Churchill, released earlier this year, focuses on the British leader’s role in planning D-Day, the Oscar nominee Darkest Hour looks at an earlier point in World War II. The new film reveals — when Britain faces the reality of 300,000 troops trapped in France — how the prime minister must juggle all the political forces to confront Germany’s advance.
Like the best history lessons on film, Darkest Hour takes us places textbooks can’t reach, into the minds of leaders and within the fears they experience. Like the most memorable journeys to the past, the movie limits the scope of its narrative to a specific period of time so it can delve beneath the surface to explore real issues people and nations face. Like the classic bio pics, this is as much a story of the chaos surrounding a person as it is an examination of how that person tries to cope.
As the film opens, in 1940, Britain faces the reality there may not be a way to stop Germany’s march across Europe. Without support from the United States, and pressure from Hitler’s forces increasing every day, British Prime Minister Chamberlain finds himself with little public support for his strategy of diplomatic negotiation. When he suddenly resigns, Churchill becomes the surprise choice to succeed, a move questioned by King George VI. How these two leaders search for a way to work together, as Churchill tries to move beyond his accidental ascension, fuels the narrative of a country trying to grasp the truth that it could lose its freedom.
At this point in the movies, when so many historical films have been made about the same topics, finding fresh ways to tell the familiar can be challenging. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten makes this conflict as intimate as possible, avoiding grand speeches in favor of compelling exchanges between Churchill and others, while director Joe Wright uses his camera to examine the underground world where the man manages his country and his life. The “War Rooms” as they are called — now open to tourists — invite audiences to see a world below the streets where the leader openly shares his ambitions and fears.
Any biopic, even one as fresh as this, demands a central performance to fill the story and honor the subject. Gary Oldman embraces this challenge with a portrayal of nuance, variation and rich interpretation. Yes, we know the actor is there beneath the heavy makeup as we savor Oldman’s eyes, his expression of voice, his passion for the words. By letting us know he is in command of the portrayal — not the latex he wears — the actor controls how we connect with his character and the story. Oscar nominee Oldman makes us want to keep watching because of what he will say not because of how he looks.
Yes, Churchill is hot again. And, thanks to the authenticity of Darkest Hour, we want to learn even more.
Film Nutritional Value: Darkest Hour
- Content: High. The story of how a leader confronts the challenges of the moment, and acts within his truth, gives the film its authentic core.
- Entertainment: High. All the makeup may help Gary Oldman look like Churchill, and his mastery of the man makes us believe we experience Churchill.
- Message: High. The lessons of how one leader confronts and communicates truth should, hopefully, inspire others to follow his approach.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn more about any historical figure can be worthwhile. And this film tells us a great deal about a great leader.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your children about a significant moment and person in history.
5 Popcorn Buckets. Darkest Hour, running 2 hours and 5 minutes, is rated PG for “some thematic material.”
Churchill reveals D-Day backstory
Of the world leaders that changed the 20th century, Winston Churchill is a new star at the movies. While history books celebrate his political savvy and brittle instinct, he had not been the star of a film for several years. And it took the Netflix series The Crown — with John Lithgow’s layered portrayal — to bring this fascinating British leader back into focus.
The Oscar-nominated Darkest Hour is, actually, the second film about the leader in recent months. Earlier in 2017 we saw Churchill, a well-intentioned if flawed examination of how Britain’s Prime Minister struggled with Allied plans to invade France in June 1944 at the height of World War II. While this film intends to offer a fresh take on Churchill’s concerns about the D-Day blueprint, it gets caught up in the hero’s dark moments. Not since Oliver Stone dug into Richard Nixon’s psyche in the troubled film Nixon has a filmmaker so celebrated a hero’s ugly side. And Churchill’s director, Jonathan Teplitzky, doesn’t seem to know when to stop.
Like the best biopics, Churchill confines its narrative to a limited period of time, the days immediately before the planned D-Day launch. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower finalizes the plans for the invasion, Churchill remembers another war when ambitious ideas led to massive injury and death. He remains haunted by the past as he struggles to understand the present and project into the future. As much as he wants to believe in Eisenhower’s expertise, Churchill’s memories make it difficult to understand. So he begins to undermine, object and manipulate his way through a different approach that could achieve a similar outcome. Yes, he wants to win the war. But not this way.
If Teplitzky had limited the film to these military uncertainties, Churchill the movie would better honor Churchill the man. But the movie maker can’t let well enough alone. He seems determined to prove that the leader’s emotional weaknesses cloud his judgment. It’s as if Teplitzky has so little respect for Churchill the leader that he refuses to imagine how someone so practiced could be so challenged. And the director goes for dramatic thrills to shock rather than meaningful moments to illuminate. We’re left with a portrayal of a man who leads in spite of himself. And lets his emotions paralyze his judgment.
As troubling as Churchill may be in the script, Teplitzky’s approach gives actor Brian Cox a dream job. And he makes the most of every moment. Cox, a reliable supporting player in many movies, reaches beyond the material to make Churchill a living creature. He fills the gaps that writer Alex von Tunzelmann leaves in his screenplay with layers of command and control. Cox makes us believe in the man we remember from history not necessarily the man presented on the pages of the script.
Ultimately, as flawed as Churchill the movie may be, its presence reminds us of the essential role movies can play to bring history to life. As we celebrate the bravery of D-Day, some 73 years later, we thank the people who gave their lives to make us free. While Churchill may disappoint, Darkest Hour is certain to please. And it shares the Churchill we need to remember.
Churchill, running 1 hour and 45 minutes, is rated PG for “thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, and some language.” It is available on demand for online streaming.
*Editor's note: This post has been updated on Feb. 5, because the review of Darkest Hour misidentified King George VI.