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“This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure.”
Winston Churchill

Gary Oldman creates the definitive take on Winston Churchill during his rise to power, but Darkest Hour doesn’t quite capture his inspiration and its lasting wake.

War of the Words

Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill
Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill

Words. In this age of instant gratification, social media, sound bites and the 24/7 news cycle, it’s all about breaking news and the quest to be first. Accuracy is secondary and nobody is concerned about finding words that last.

Back in May of 1940, it was a different world. People read (printed) newspapers on the Underground and listened to live radio broadcasts of major events. May 1940 was a month of major significance in the life of Winston Churchill. That’s when he was selected to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

It was a controversial move. Churchill, after all, had enemies in his own party and a backstory of significant failure. He was a good friend to alcohol, a cigar chain-smoker and in possession of an abrasive personality. Perhaps most significantly, though, the Gallipoli beach landing under his command in 1915 was disastrous.

Political, economic and violent turbulence was gripping all corners of the world. Adolf Hitler was waging war on Europe, with Germany rising from the ashes of World War I and in the process of invading France. In the UK, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s desire to sue for peace put the British Empire in a position of weakness.

From the get-go, Churchill faced obstruction and plans to undermine his efforts. Make your own connections to current history as you deem fit.

The Gathering Storm: Words of Resonance

Read Churchill’s The Second World War, a monumental series of six books documenting the calamitous events. His stern, strong voice can still be heard coming through loud and clear while reading those pages, even the crackle and static of the radio waves; it’s as if those waves are perpetually, eternally reverberating in and around Earth’s atmosphere. To pluck a quote from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

World War I bled right into World War II. As Churchill puts it, mistakes and bad choices following the War to End All Wars kept the world in peril and led to World War II. It was actually all one long, drawn-out war of devastation and catastrophic loss of life.

In director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, the focus is strictly on that month of May in 1940. It’s stylishly presented, anchored by Oldman’s performance of award-winning caliber. Given the largely cerebral nature of the content, it’s also admirably engaging.

But, at the same time, there’s something missing in the exploration of Churchill’s world-saving (not an exaggeration) rise to power and influence. He goes from a regret to the right hand of King George VI, who took the thrown following his brother Edward’s marriage to American divorcé Wallis Simpson (a romance that has been brought back into the headlines thanks to the recent engagement of Prince Harry and American divorcé Meghan Markle).

Their Finest Hour: Words of Resolve

The events of Darkest Hour coincide with the action in Dunkirk, France. Christopher Nolan’s masterful telling of that historic chapter in Dunkirk serves as a perfect companion piece. Wright’s movie explores — at too high of a level — Churchill’s behind-the-scenes maneuvers. And it somehow misses the pathos and sweep of the rescue mission’s inspiration and the resulting salvation.

Inspiration and the cerebral activity of stringing the right words together is hard to capture on film. Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, exploring the life of mathematician and cryptographer John Nash, is one of the best to accomplish that feat. Here, in Darkest Hour, the outward Churchill is well on display, but the inner nut remains uncracked, the magic of the inner mind remains a mystery.

Politics can be fickle, and so can fate. Mere months after World War II concluded (in May 1945), Churchill was removed from power.

Maybe the basic problem is Churchill’s life story simply too much to tell. Surely that’s the logic behind focusing exclusively on the events of May 1940 in Darkest Hour. ¬†As a look at the man in that relatively brief period, the movie works well enough.

But to understand the full depth and breadth of the man requires a lot more words.