One day, let’s hope soon, the world will cease to relentlessly celebrate old white dicks. Perhaps one day we will collectively stop recognizing the accomplishments of assholes as a byproduct of their being assholes. No amount of success or sociopolitical standing absolves a person’s responsibility to treat others with basic respect and decency, and a demeaning temperament is not a magic, invisible key that unlocks genius. To the effect that Darkest Hour celebrates Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) for his anti-Nazi resolve, it is timely and relevant. To the effect that it depicts a grotesque narcissist as whimsical for treating others like crap, it is Fox News with special effects more believable than Brian Kilmeade.
Set in May 1940, just as the Germany army got to goosestepping across Europe, Darkest Hour methodically traces Churchill’s first days as British Prime Minister. Disliked by his King (Ben Mendelsohn), a pain in the ass of his wife (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and just a huge, colossal prick to everyone, especially his new assistant (Lily James), Churchill steadfastly argues against making peace with Hitler (The Guy From Internet Arguments).
Two members of his own party—the former Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane)—understandably fear that a diplomatic semi-surrender may be the only way to preserve any semblance of the United Kingdom. The bulk of the movie then is Churchill’s adamant refusal to back down when facing fascism while smoking every cigar in the whole of Britain.
Presumably, Darkest Hour was born of the realization that Gary Oldman does not yet have an Oscar. His “disappearance into the role” is impressive enough to almost warrant the use of that cliché. The performance does not excuse Churchill’s temperament or flaws so much as the existence of the film itself does. Were writer Anthony McCarten and director Joe Wright any more reverent in their approach, the final shot would have been the pair attempting to clone that British booze-pinata in order to make out with him. Yet, not unlike Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a deliberate fictional depiction of the decisions made inside a horrifying war are inherently captivating. Watching Churchill somewhat callously send a garrison of 4,000 soldiers to die a horrible death for “the greater good” feels gross and is the exact sort of thing worth including in our collective narrative.
Surprisingly not billed as being “set in the same cinematic universe” as Dunkirk and The King’s Speech, Darkest Hour is a meticulously crafted, very-special-History-Channel movie unlikely to leave a major impact, outside of once again raising a glass to a mean, white asshat who admittedly did a real good thing in standing against Nazis. In the absence of a film’s ability to make audiences nervous about an outcome, the best a historical drama can do is provide new context or captivate. Darkest Hour barely ekes out enough in both columns to be engaging enough.
Grade = B