Saturday, December 23, 2017

Darkest Hour (The Movie)

2017 has been filled cinematically with Winston Churchill and World War II. This year has given us  Their Finest, Churchill, and, of course, Dunirk. The first depicted a crew working together in 1940 on a propaganda film about the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, the event so dramatically portrayed in the third film. Winston Churchill (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from May 10, 1940 through July 27, 1945) was in the background of those other films but was at the center of the film which bears his name and which focused on the run-up to D-Day in 1944. Churchill is again at the center of this latest film, a much better one, which focuses primarily on Churchill's accession to the Prime Ministership and the first month of his term. Gary Oldman stars splendidly as Churchill. as do Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Clementine, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI.

One problem with such films, of course is that the story is so well known (or, at least ought to be) that it is always a challenge to spin it in some novel way which compensates for our knowing everything that is going to happen. Even knowing what is going to happen, however, we are still enthralled by Oldman's bravura performance as Churchill. 

The film faithfully captures the intense opposition to Churchill from the British Tory Establishment, led by Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax. Although the movie alludes to the fact only subtly (by showing him as a spectator in the Strangers' Gallery - and never on the floor - of the Commons chamber), the fact that Halifax sat in the other House may ultimately have been what saved Britain and the world from the catastrophe that would have been his premiership. Even so, it was touch-and-go for Churchill, and the film focuses rather relentlessly on that tension, both the external opposition and the internal struggle it evoked.  It even incorporates a "populist" touch in the contrast it portrays between the patriotic populace and the appeasement-oriented Establishment. 

Churchill had a lot to overcome to attain the Prime Ministership - including the memory of his role as a would-be supporter of King Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis. The process by which King George comes around to accept and support Churchill despite that memory is one of the subplots that enriches the arc of the overall story.

Why are we still so fascinated by Churchill and World War II so many decades later? The "Greatest Generation" that actually remembers the war is dying off. The Boomers, like myself, grew up on a steady diet of war stories and so have a certain nostalgia for a time that we all were taught to appreciate as of absolutely decisive importance for civilization as we know it. Beyond that, I think we all crave something of the moral clarity that that conflict has come to represent (in retrospect). We envy the sense of common purpose the war produced in both Britain and (eventually) the U.S. - in contrast to our contemporary lack of anything remotely resembling that. And we remain fascinated by the heroic figures who towered over that time - Churchill, Roosevelt, DeGaulle - and cannot help but compare them with the political pygmies later generations have sadly produced.

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