Without a doubt, the best film that I saw in 2017 is Darkest Hour.
Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), and starring the incomparable Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, this is historically inspired feature filmmaking at its very finest, as the summary of the plot suggests:
During the early days of World War II, with the fall of France imminent, Britain faces its darkest hour as the threat of invasion looms. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. While maneuvering his political rivals, he must confront the ultimate choice: negotiate with Hitler and save the British people at a terrible cost or rally the nation and fight on against incredible odds.
This is an important movie about an important historical figure who, quite literally, changed the course of Western civilization. It’s not often that you can write such a sentence after walking out of your local movie theater. Modern adult moviegoers are typically offered a choice between seeing yet another sequel to yet another fantasy-based “universe” or the latest “indie darling” about a girl who hates her parents and religion. While those stories have their place, it is refreshing to be taken into the world of serious people in serious situations who achieved something significant.
As Samuel Johnson put it, people need to be reminded more often than instructed. We’ve all heard of Winston Churchill and understand the broad outlines of his role in helping defeat the Nazis, but how many of us can accurately articulate Churchill’s place in those momentous events (let alone how he came to be in such a critical position at such a vital time)? How many of us who admire Churchill are also familiar with his faults and flaws? How many of us who take for granted that he was important know how close the world came to being dominated by Adolf Hitler?
History can be boring, especially when delivered in purely scholastic or two-dimensional ways. This is why storytellers in TV and film have a duty to “do history” well (and all the more so when dealing with truly heroic figures or momentous events). If you’re going to attempt to tackle a subject as weighty as Winston Churchill’s stand against Hitler, it must not feel like an academic-minded documentary on the one hand, or come off as a gaudy abuse of creative license on the other. You need to make something people will pay to watch, but you don’t have to treat audiences like attention-addled children who can’t sit still long enough to unspool a complicated story. This creative tension is healthy and good and should be embraced.
Winston Churchill was arguably the most important leader among those in the West who stood up against totalitarianism. This doesn’t mean we need to sugarcoat his shortcomings, but we need not revel in them either. Our cynical age enjoys celebrating the anti-hero; how many movies or television shows have you watched that rail against “big business” or old white guys or churches or tradition? At least a few, I suspect.
What a film like Darkest Hour—and last summer’s Dunkirk—does is remind us that great historical stories told in compelling ways don’t need to fill social justice warrior quotas or kowtow to political correctness. They don’t need diversity coordinators or “woke” liberal columnists to explain why everything is really about Donald Trump. When a film isn’t agenda-driven, when a talented storyteller seeks to explore characters or worlds on their own terms, the possibility for creativity and enjoyment increases exponentially.
Darkest Hour is a really good movie about a very important man. It’s worth your time to see and is appropriate for the whole family. Enjoy it. Support it with your time and money. It’s the most sure-fire way to guarantee you’ll get to see more movies like it.
Image: Focus Features LLC