Twice this year the booming voice of Winston Churchill has lifted his country’s spirits. With British forces backed up to the sea at Dunkirk, and Nazis poised for the kill, Churchill boldly predicted victory:
“We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
In Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” Churchill’s rhetoric played a secondary role in the story of the soldiers on the beach awaiting rescue – and the civilians in the boats, rushing to their aid.
In Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” Churchill himself becomes the focus. The battlefield in this story is not on the beach, but inside the British government.
Between those two films, we have gained a multi-dimensional view of a seminal moment in WWII: the miracle of Dunkirk, when civilian boats helped save an army.
Moviegoers who have seen those films, however, best beware before taking a WWII exam from former Carroll Professors William Greytak or Robert Swartout. Both films take occasional poetic liberties that sacrifice flat facts for fascinating fiction.
But both films faithfully respect much of the history throughout the narrative – and both films are among the best of 2017.
“Darkest Hour” will likely win the Best Actor Oscar for Gary Oldman for his nuanced portrayal of a very complex -- and oft stereotyped -- leader.
While we do learn a bit about history, we learn more about the paralyzing pressures faced by leaders while making high-stakes decisions. Churchill was a compromise choice for prime minister, regarded by many as more pomp than policy. His every move was viewed with suspicion.
Nothing less than the possible defeat of England was at stake as the Nazis drove towards the Western coast of the continent. Britannia, who once ruled the sea, was in danger of being the next domino to fall.
Enter Churchill, who spoke loudly and, in essence, ordered the Royal Navy to commandeer small boats and deputize a flotilla of civilians to answer the threat.
The script pays close attention to Churchill’s relationships – both personal, with his wife Clementine and his secretary Elizabeth, as well as professional, with generals, with the king and with hostile politicians. Churchill navigated those landmines with great finesse, slowly turning cynical skeptics to begrudging admirers.
We see the contradictions and inconsistencies that define real people: A man with a volatile temper shows moments of tenderness; a decisive leader wavers under pressure; and a fiery orator talks softly to his king.
Adding to the power is exquisite craftsmanship, especially the costumes, sets, cinematography and editing. “Darkest Hour” is a masterwork of technique.
The one serious drawback emerges from historians: that a pivotal scene where Churchill rides the Underground and seeks advice of Brits is total fabrication. Scholars also say hardline Churchill never considered negotiations with Hitler (via Italy), despite the suggestion in the script that he wavered.
Such needless embellishments keep “Darkest Hour” from being the masterpiece is might have been.
But “Darkest Hour” still stands as an exceptional film which, when paired with “Dunkirk,” refreshes our memory of a dark period of history that’s now more than 75 years behind us.
We’re told that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We’d like to believe the flip side of that wisdom as well: That by retelling stories of darkest moments in history we will somehow manage to avoid reliving them.
Since it’s Christmas week, let’s choose to believe that such knowledge will indeed bring peace – and that the leaders of our world will, in the spirit of Charles Dickens, learn how to keep Christmas well.