But there are still exceptions at times. There are on occasion meat-and-vegetables types of films if you look for them. These are films that bring actual history to the screen. They are not just films for entertainment but also education as well. These films have something important and clear to teach us about our actual world and how it came to be. And most importantly they seek to depict the real blood, sweat, and tears poured out to bring us the world we inherit today.
Darkest Hour is precisely this type of film.
The two-hour documentary-style work provides a laser-precise focus into the mind and inner struggles of Winston Churchill during World War II. The film begins with Churchill’s acceptance of the prime minister position and illustrates his struggle to unit the British government against Nazi Germany. We learn that the outcome of British resolve was by no means a forgone conclusion as formidable political elements pushed Churchill to pursue a path of appeasement instead of armed resistance.
Today’s critics will no doubt deride the film as slow or even dull. Whereas the average viewer might expect dueling portrayals of posturing between Churchill and Hitler amidst cataclysmic violence, the film takes a decidedly different turn. The camera purposefully gives us very little Hitler in exchange for almost exclusive access to the United Kingdom. Darkest Hour shows us the sum of British inter-politics and the polarized fights of party leaders over what to do with their fear. Churchill’s role in this context is to galvanize the assembly into defiant action against an all-but-certain threat.
If you’ve partaken of a good chunk of the recent superhero or space films over the past few years (as I have), then you will likely find yourself wholly unprepared for this film. I found myself struggling to have any sympathy for Churchill’s opponents. Modern cinema has taught us that Nazis are evil because they are evil, right? Evil must be opposed because that’s why it exists. Villains are supposed to put up a good fight and pull a few unexpected tricks, but in the end we know it’s their role to die in utter defeat. Appeasement or cowering to them doesn’t make for a good show.
Darkest Hour snaps us out of this trance as we realize that real-life opposition to evil is never that simple. Before Churchill can even get to the Nazis, he must first battle the darkness within himself. At his wife’s supportive insistence Churchill wrestles repeatedly with his own brashness, rudeness, and disregard for the common person. He fluctuates back and forth with his desire to be accommodating to his political opponents while also pushing them in the direction he knows best. And near the end of the film he confronts his own vulnerabilities and sense of defeat, searching and finding support in places he never expected.
This is a story of how leadership and true heroism are fashioned. It is not a glamorous, attractive, individualistic, or even fun process. It is a constant and communal war to tame ugly sin within oneself and help others diminish their faults. It is a relentless desire to work within, through, and around processes one may not like. Churchill does all this -- at times well and at other times not so well. His rise is one of conflicted evolution as various members alternatively bring out the best and worst in him. He learns, however violently, that he must listen to and respect others in order to empower them. The whole depiction is nuanced, believable, and morally captivating.
This isn’t to say that Darkest Hour is a perfect film. Much of the historical context of the film is implied or even assumed. Those with thorough knowledge of the circumstances and unfolding of World War II may be delighted, but the rest of us may find ourselves uncertain as to the exact effect of Churchill’s actions. No bombing raids of Britain ever appear on screen to justify Churchill’s mobilization of his comrades. And the ending certainly needed more work to bring Churchill’s full impact to life.
But the beauty of the film is clear and present. It is actor Gary Oldman’s palpable portrayal of Churchill, showing us an imperfect man who rose to the occasion in horrible times. We see Winston Churchill in full -- tough and brutish on the edges but caring, compassionate, and resolute on the inside. We see him learning to accept and utilize criticism without succumbing to defeat. And best of all, we see and feel Churchill’s connection to his countrymen and women as they enlighten and embolden the man from the inside.
Mega-blasters, sonic booms explosions, and cocky one-liners are abundant in our cinema today. The thirst for such sensationalism even seems to be spilling over into our daily culture as polarization, defensiveness, hatred of one’s political opponents, and self-righteousness abound in real world politics. Today, just as in World War II, Winston Churchill’s combination of virtue, humility, resilience, and ability to break down walls is in short supply. As depicted in Darkest Hour he exhibits unique and exquisite traits that are sorely needed for goodness to prevail.
And that, by definition, makes him a real-life superhero.