Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Darkest Hour (Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films, Focus Features, Universal, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a quite good movie about the challenge to stop tyranny and the unlikely alliances sometimes needed to pull it off: Darkest Hour, the 2017 film directed by Joe Wright from a script by Anthony McCarten (both people I’d never heard of before) about the first month (May 1940) during which Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of Great Britain. It has its flaws, goodness knows: as Charles pointed out, it’s totally an expression of the “great man” view of history, and it’s so claustrophobic it hardly ever gets out of the environs of Churchill’s home (the ancestral estate he shared with his long-suffering wife Cissie) and the British government headquarters at No. 10 Downing Street, which at least as depicted in this film is little more than an entryway to an elaborate series of tunnels and underground rooms where the British government actually organized itself and from which it led the war effort. Indeed, McCarten’s script is so confined to rooms one could readily imagine it being presented on stage as a play — only a handful of insert shots of planes flying overhead and the famous flotilla of private boats Churchill requisitioned from their owners to get the British troops off the beach at Dunkirk, France before the invading Germans massacred and/or captured them give us any visual evidence of a war actually going on instead of merely being talked about. But it’s also a tour de force for Gary Oldman, who played Churchill and deservedly won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for his performance. When this film came out The New Yorker ran an interesting review which compared Oldman to every other person who’s ever appeared on screen as Winston Churchill — including Churchill himself in surviving newsreels — and suggested there are patterns in how various actors (and writers and directors) portray Churchill in light of our current ideas and feelings about World War II. The main conflict in Darkest Hour is between Churchill and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who had been Britain’s foreign minister before the war and had kept British foreign policy so carefully balanced between appeasement and some attempt at resistance to the Nazis that cartoonist David Low once drew him as a tightrope walker carrying a balance pole labeled the “Halifaxis.” Halifax is working with the former — and fatally ill (with cancer) — prime minister, Neville Chamberlain to bring down Churchill’s government almost as soon as it is formed and to accept the invitation of Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, to broker a peace deal between Britain and Nazi Germany. Churchill, of course, is totally opposed to this; he is convinced that the only way to save Britain is to fight on, to the death if necessary — though the real Churchill was well aware that Britain on its own was doomed and the key to its survival was to get the United States into the war on the Allied side. 

Indeed (and my primary source for this is Churchill himself — I’ve read the first two volumes of his six-book history of World War II, the second of which, Their Finest Hour, covers the period dramatized in this film), Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt carried on a secret correspondence, each signing their letters “Former Naval Person” (a reference to the fact that during World War I Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty and Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy), plotting ways to get the U.S. into the war despite the obstacles of the Neutrality Act and other roadblocks the isolationist majority in the U.S. Congress had thrown up to keep America out of it. In the film there’s a preposterous conversation between Churchill and Roosevelt — Roosevelt is never seen in the film but his phone voice is supplied by actor David Strathairn — in which Churchill pleads for old ships and also for planes the British have already paid for, albeit with money the U.S. lent them, and Roosevelt says he can’t send a carrier across the Atlantic to deliver the planes but he can ship them to within one mile of the Canadian border and the Brits can use horses to pull them the rest of the way into Canada, from which they can be sent to Britain legally. I suspect that story is apocryphal — just as I strongly suspect writer McCarten cherry-picked the actual historical events for incidents that would fit into a standard Hollywood-style “story arc” and give Churchill a stirring come-from-behind victory over the plotting of Chamberlain and Halifax with a big speech to the House of Commons. In fact on June 1, just days after the story told in Darkest Hour ended, Roosevelt defied the Neutrality Act and issued an executive order to cut the so-called “destroyers-for-bases” deal by which the British got 50 overage U.S. destroyers to bolster their coastal defenses in exchange for 99-year U.S. leases on British land in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. So the British got the old ships Churchill is seen asking for in the film and also was able to call some of the troops that had been defending the Caribbean home to fight the real threat if and when Nazi Germany used newly conquered France to launch an invasion of Britain. 

Much of the commentary on Darkest Hour on is less about the film itself than about Churchill’s historical record and whether he deserves the hagiographic treatment McCarten and Wright gave him; some of the anti-Churchill arguments were made at the time and are in the film, notably the catastrophic loss in the sea battle of Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, a major defeat for Britain against Ottoman Turkey (an ally of Germany and Austro-Hungary) in World War I that cost Churchill his position as First Lord of the Admiralty then — in Darkest Hour he’s heard blaming the loss on the Navy, who dithered and thereby cost the operation the crucial element of surprise. Others have come out since, including Churchill’s determination to keep Britain’s colonial empire in general and India in particular; according to one “Trivia” poster, Churchill was as vehement in his denunciations of Mahatma Gandhi as he was in his denunciations of Hitler, at one point going so far as to say it was a pity the South Africans hadn’t executed Gandhi back in the 1890’s when they first arrested him. Indeed, it occurred to me during the film that there were some striking similarities between Winston Churchill and Donald Trump: at one point there’s a dialogue exchange between Churchill and King George VI in which the king says, “One never knows what’s going to come out of your mouth next. Something that’ll flatter, something that’ll wound.” Churchill replies by doing something rather un-Trumpian and acknowledging the criticism: “My emotions are unbridled. A wildness. In the blood. I share with my father. And my mother also. We lack the gift of temperance.” But it’s clear that one of the things that put the Conservative politicians trying to choose whether to offer the prime ministership to Churchill or Halifax was Churchill’s explosive utterances and his sheer unpredictability, both qualities he shares with Trump. 

Another “Trivia” poster said that Churchill was never that popular with the British electorate; this person argued that had there been a general election in Britain during the war (as there was in the U.S. in 1944), Churchill would have lost — just as he actually did lose in the first election held after Nazi Germany’s surrender in 1945, in which his Conservative Party was beaten by the Labour Party headed by Clement Attlee (whom Churchill describes in Darkest Hour as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing). Churchill did regain the prime ministership in 1951 but, according to this “Trivia” poster, the Conservatives actually had a minority of the votes in that election but won the legislative majority that gives a party power in the U.K. because the districts were apportioned so the Conservatives won the majority even though Labour actually increased its vote total over 1945. That should be a good lesson for people in this country who think the Democrats are going to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in this year’s mid-term elections: thanks to their overwhelming control of state legislatures and the increasing use of sophisticated computer programs to draw legislative districts that virtually ensure the ability of the current majority party in most states, the Republicans, to keep that status, the Brennan Center for Justice,, estimates that the Democrats will have to win the popular vote for House seats by between 6 and 11 percent just to have a chance at a majority. “Because of maps designed to favor Republicans, Democrats would need to win by a nearly unprecedented nationwide margin in 2018 to gain control of the House of Representatives,” the Brennan Center authors write in the executive summary of their report. “To attain a bare majority, Democrats would likely have to win the national popular vote by nearly 11 points. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have won by such an overwhelming margin in decades. Even a strong blue wave would crash against a wall of gerrymandered maps.” 

In one sense Darkest Hour is a “print-the-legend” version of history, the one that says it was Winston Churchill who single-handedly rallied the British people around what seemed like a lost cause and lit a fire under them that inspired them first to get their people off Dunkirk, then to fight back in the air as their major cities were punished by German raids, and finally to fight on in the various theatres of the war until total victory was achieved in 1945. But within those limits — the hagiographical mythologization of Churchill as a sort of secular superhero; the cherry-picking of historical events to support the Churchill myth; and the oddly claustrophobic aspect of the movie (for much of it we never seem to get out of that rabbit warren of tunnels supposedly built under No. 10 Downing Street from which Churchill and his cabinet actually ran Britain’s war effort) — one “Trivia” poster said that was due to the fact that the schedules for the actors they wanted forced them to shoot in the dead of winter even though the events of the film took place in May 1940, and therefore McCarten had virtually the entire movie take place indoors, but it certainly seemed like an aesthetic choice to me, and Wright responded to McCarten’s claustrophobic script with so many overhead shots I joked early on, “If Busby Berkeley had made a movie about the British government during World War II, this is what it would have looked like” — Darkest Hour is superb, well acted not only by Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas as his long-suffering wife (with a quite nice supporting part for Lily James as Churchill’s put-upon secretary, Elizabeth Layton) but the typical excellent cast of British actors — is it their DNA, something in their water, or just the tradition with which they are trained, that makes British actors consistently the greatest in the world? It’s a worthwhile movie but it’s also piqued my desire to see Dunkirk, also made in 2017 and also about the same crisis period in the British war effort in World War II, but apparently much more focused on the actual battle and the campaign to evacuate the British soldiers stranded on the French beachhead. I haven’t seen a DVD or Blu-Ray available for Dunkirk yet but the clips I’ve seen on various TV shows indicate it would be an excellent companion piece to Darkest Hour.