One of the many reasons why movies are amazing is that they can inform a younger audience about legendary historical figures. For instance, I knew little about Winston Churhill going into Joe Wright’s magnificent new film, Darkest Hour.
Sure, I knew what he was responsible for in World War II and several other high points of American history, the effect he had on battles that could have changed the future instantly, but I didn’t really “know” who he was. You can download the dates and factual information from a wikepedia page at Starbucks. You won’t truly know the man until you watch Wright’s film. Again, the power of film taking shape.
It helps to have a craftsman like Gary Oldman at your disposal, because there’s literally no role the Brit is afraid of. He doesn’t just apply a few layers of prosthetic and chew scenery as Churchill (Leonardo DiCaprio did that in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar). Oldman penetrates the chilly yet well-meaning heart and soul of the man who stood up against the tyranny of Adolf Hitler in May, 1940-and gives an Oscar worthy performance.
I’m being serious here. Oldman is freakishly good. The Academy can just mail him an invite to the 2018 ceremony right now. With no disrespect to the rest of the year’s films and their casts, you may not see a better performance than Oldman’s through Christmas.
Wright’s film doesn’t try to cover Churchill’s whole life, because there is no need. Everything you need to know about the kind of man he was could be pulled from his actions during the dawn of World War II, before the United States even got involved. When Hitler’s troops were overtaking the French coast of Dunkirk, Churchill was the guy sitting in the war room contemplating how much blood he could afford to splash on his hands in order to turn the tide of a deadly war.
The film picks up right after Churchill is improbably sworn in as the British Prime Minister and delving into the detailed strategy behind taking down Hitler-or at least kicking out one of his legs. For being such a great war strategist in the eyes of history today, at that particular juncture, Churchill scared more people than he gave calm vibes to. It’s not like he just popped in, drew up a playbook, and smoked a couple hundred cigars. Wright shows you the haunt behind the man’s decisions and actions.
I love the fact that Wright shows us the insecurities of such a legendary figure. It would have been easy to shine a light on the great aspects of Churchill’s reign, but the director, along with screenwriter Anthony McCarten, shows us everything that the man dealt with. The restless nights, unsure moments, and brief yet potent breakdowns that Churchill encountered. Like Ava DeVernay did with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Wright gives us the man in his complete form, warts and all. That makes Darkest Hour work, and a never better Oldman.
The supporting cast is particularly strong, especially Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s long suffering, but proud, wife. Ben Mendolsohn merges wit and humor as the King of England who slowly warmed to Churchill’s ways, and Lily James puts in good work as the woman who had to put Churchill’s overworked brain on paper. Wright assembled a dream team, from Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax to Ronald Pickup’s Neville Chamberlain.
I can’t truly get down on paper how mesmerizing Oldman is as Churchill. The walk, the speech, and the overall nature of the man is covered. With no disrespect to Brian Cox’s take on the man earlier this year, Oldman creates an all time glimpse into a man who once said, “when you are going through hell, keep going.” He nails the man’s speeches, but most importantly, the quiet scenes that truly defined the man.
The fact that the movie is this good shouldn’t come as any surprise, because Wright is a well known kingmaker at the Oscars. Films like Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Atonement, and the edgy Hanna tell you how well this man works. Darkest Hour is another notch on the belt. Wright even finds frequent ways to show the light humor that Churchill brought to a room. You’ll actually laugh out loud during a World War II film.
I walked into Darkest Hour knowing what Winston Churchill did 77 years ago. Now, I know how he did it, due to Wright, Oldman, and Thomas. That’s the power of film, bringing history back to the forefront and merging it with entertainment.
If you wondered during Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster Dunkirk whose idea it was to launch thousands of British civilian boats to rescue soldiers from sure death, you’ll know after this flick.