Well, I finally got around to seeing the new Winston Churchill movie. You may have heard of it – “Darkest Hour”. It is garnering a lot of awards buzz and has already pocketed the Best Actor Golden Globe. The movie covers the first few weeks of Churchill’s first tenure as Prime Minister. The title alludes to the fact that those weeks coincided with the lowest moment in the war for Great Britain. The Norway debacle was underway and France was being pummeled by the Wehrmacht. Dunkirk takes place during the movie’s time frame. It is directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and written by Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominee for “The Theory of Everything”). Gary Oldman stars as Churchill. He spent over 200 hours in makeup. He smoked over 400 cigars during the filming at a cost of over $20,000. He was the sixth actor from the Harry Potter movies to portray Churchill.
The movie opens with newsreel scenes to set the time as May, 1940 with the Nazis on the rampage. Parliament is looking for a replacement for the appeaser Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). In a raucous Commons, a Labour Party Member makes a fiery speech demanding that Chamberlain step down. Cries of “Go! Go! Resign! Resign!” cascading upon Churchill’s empty seat. Chamberlain reads the mood and wants Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to replace him. The only other choice is Winston. Egads! When Halifax declines, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) summons Churchill to an awkward meeting at the Palace. Not a fan. We are introduced to Churchill’s new secretary, a comely mousey Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) and we empathize with her as she deals with the irascible Winny through the stress-laden next few weeks. While the soldiers are facing the stress of the Nazi juggernaut, Churchill is having to deal with cabinet dysfunction. Chamberlain and Halifax are plotting his demise based on his refusal to negotiate a peace deal with the unbeatable foe. Will Winny cave to the pacifists? Go see the movie or go back to school to find out.
For those hoping for a companion to the recent “Dunkirk”, “Darkest Hour” does not really fill in the macro elements. As I mentioned, it concentrates mostly on whether Churchill should negotiate peace. This makes it more of a political thriller than a war movie. It is also something of a biopic, even though it covers only a few weeks in Churchill’s life. We do get a vivid picture of his personality and political talents. All the famous quirks are here: the love of whiskey and cigars, the dictating while in the bathtub, the late-night work sessions, etc. Inclusion of the Layton character (the stereotypical war correspondent equivalent from war movies) is effective in depicting his speech writing style. She also acts as the foil for his curmudgeonry. Her first day on the job, he calls her a “nincompoop”. Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes us backstage to see the private “Winny” and we witness his mood swings. The movie jumps around from the private quarters to the political settings which are filmed in a “West Wing” corridor-maneuvering style. The highlights are the speeches, of course. In a nod to current attention spans, they are edited to their rousing parts. The “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech is niftily intercut with its composition.
The reason to see the movie is Oldman’s performance. He is magnificent and will win a well-deserved Oscar come May. However, let’s not go overboard on the accolades. Churchill is an actor-proof character. Can you name an actor who blew the role? He may be the best yet, but the others were pretty darn good, too. The supporting cast is fine and Thomas has gotten some Oscar buzz. Pickup and Dillane do a good job sliming the reputations of Chamberlain and Halifax. Movies need villains, right? Mendelsohn does not attempt to out-stutter Colin Firth. Lily James is something of a weak-link in a stock role, but you have to credit her agent with putting her in this film and “Baby Driver” in the same year.
Wright does a nice job directing. The cinematography has some showiness to it. He is fond of aerial views to literally give the big picture. It sometimes comes off as the only time he wants to depict the war is from a plane. In fact, the movie does not intercut to the boys on the beach. We do witness a political battle and spend a lot of time following Churchill through the corridors of power. Speaking of which, someone needed to tell the person in charge of lighting that in the case of the title “darkest” is not literal. This is one dark movie, and I mean that literally. The dialogue is what you would expect, especially when Churchill is talking. He gets the bon mots, which is appropriate, but Clemmy gets to be charmingly snarky. The music is of the Masterpiece Theater variety.
The weakness is in the plot. The decision to concentrate on the peace negotiation issue is a curious one. It does allow for a standard biopic plot where the protagonist goes through an arc of uncertainty, but for Churchill fans it leaves you wondering about the veracity of his vacillating. He goes from apparently being the only one against peace talks to almost becoming a hippie. It just doesn’t ring true. The machinations of Chamberlain and Halifax seem Snidely Whiplashish. I left the theater scratching my head about its accuracy. See below to find out if I had reason for concern.
“Darkest Hour” is a must-see for history buffs. If you have never seen a Churchill movie (and shame on you if you haven’t), you’ll get the gist of why he was special. Oldman’s performance alone makes it a must-see. In this it reminds of “Lincoln”, but the latter picture is superior. Not because Day-Lewis did a better acting job, but the plot was more interesting. Lincoln had better enemies.
GRADE = B
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie opens on May 8, 1940. Parliament is in an uproar over the Norway debacle. The movie does not make that clear, possibly because Churchill was a major cause of that debacle. It was basically his baby, but ironically he did not have to shoulder much of the blame. The blowback squarely targeted Chamberlain, as depicted in the opening speech by an opponent. The movie makes a point of Churchill being conspicuously absent, but in reality he was there to support Chamberlain and tried to take responsibility for Norway. Chamberlain and the King did prefer Halifax and he did decline for reasons not really explored in the movie. It certainly implies his motives were shady, which is a shame because some historians argue it was an act of statesmanship. Apparently, he felt it was not the right moment for him and he modestly felt that being from the House of Lords would make it uncomfortable for the Commons to have him in charge. He and Chamberlain did push the idea of opening a peace channel through Mussolini, but I could find no evidence that they were trying to bring down Churchill if he refused to toe their line. The movie has them absurdly trying to set up Churchill. The King did not want Churchill and the movie does mention his anger over Churchill siding with Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis. Their first meeting was awkward.
The idea that Churchill wavered on the peace issue is only loosely based on reality. He did toy with Halifax’s suggestion of sending a message to Mussolini, but he did not go very far down that path. There was no tipping point moment where he listened to the people in the Underground (note the movie’s inclusion of every demographic in that scene). The subway scene is pure artistic license and a trite moment in an otherwise serious movie. The only time Churchill was ever on a subway train was during the general strike of 1926. The bigger problem with the scene is I am sure the screenwriter would argue that it reflected the mood of the people. In reality, a typical subway group at that time would have been divided over what to do. They would not have been unanimously and enthusiastically in favor of never surrendering. The follow-up scene where Churchill addresses the Outer Cabinet is more accurate, although it accepts Churchill’s memory of vocal support from his peers. That scene actually resulted not from mingling with the common people, but from an exchange with Halifax in which his insistence on negotiation got Churchill’s back up and this mood followed him into the meeting. Enough was enough. No more dilly-dallying. There was no moment where Churchill switched from considering peace to no surrender.
As far as the Dunkirk references, the movie is shaky here as well. It implies that Churchill defied the generals in implementing Operation Dynamo. In fact, Churchill was unrealistically aggressive-minded as the crisis developed. The movie does not do a good job of showing how Churchill was brimming with ideas, but most of them were ridiculous. He did not order the Calais garrison to make a suicidal counterattack to buy time for the evacuation. In reality, he ordered the garrison to hold out where it was to buy time (which it really didn’t). His lack of strategic awareness was exemplified by his wanting Gen. Gort to counterattack instead of retreating to the port. It was Gort’s own initiative that saved the army in the early stages. Once the siege began, Churchill deserves credit for lighting a fire under the navy to evacuate the army. He is correctly given credit for encouraging the use of the little ships, but I do not know if he can be credited with the idea itself. No matter the quibbles, no one better earned the right to give the “we will fight on the beaches” speech.
The movie gets some minor details wrong. Layton did not actually come to work for him until a month later, but that is excusable. Churchill vetoed any talk of the royal family escaping to Canada. There was no direct phone hookup to the White House at that time. The conversation between the two heads of state is a composite of discussions. Strangely, the movie gives the vibe that FDR’s proposal of using horses to pull the fighters over the Canadian border was a silly one when in reality it was a sneaky way to get around Congress and it was implemented. The movie is bad about implying that FDR did not do enough to help Churchill in his hour of need. It also implies that FDR turned down the opportunity to give England some destroyers. The destroyers for bases deal may have come months later, but FDR arranged it as soon as he could.