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Darkest Hour: Movie Review

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I didn’t live through World War II. I’ve tried with little success to understand what it felt like to live in a world facing such an urgent and terrifying existential crisis. What glimpses I’ve gotten have often come from movies like Darkest Hour. The film recalls Winton Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) early days as prime minister of the U.K., as the German army moved inexorably westward. This film paints a picture of a nation facing a bleak future, with options ranging from horrible to merely awful. Whatever complaints I might have about life in 2017, these are trivial by comparison. There’s something a little perverse about feeling sorry for the world’s most powerful and privileged people, but I don’t envy anyone whose decisions carry the weight of life and death consequences for thousands, if not millions. This film tells a gripping tale, even with complaints that I admit say more about me than anything on the screen.

It’s hard to decide whether Oldman’s Churchill captured the essence of the man, or merely flitted between authenticity and eccentricity. This is less a criticism of Oldman’s performance, which showed both humor and gravitas, than it is a confession of my unfamiliarity with Churchill. I’ve read quips attributed to the famously witty statesman and heard recordings of speeches, but these are a poor substitute for the kind of familiarity that would come in later decades. By the ‘50s and ‘60s, television displaced radio as the medium through which politicians connected to their respective citizenry. To his credit, Oldman gets out of the way of the character. Whereas some actors are too distinctive to entirely transform without leaving behind a distracting trace of themselves, Oldman became another person in Darkest Hour. Whether that person is Winston Churchill through-and-through is beyond my ability to answer and to some extent doesn’t matter.

There is a risk inherent to any movie about complicated political machinations — it might get confusing, or worse, boring. That risk is even greater for this film with American audiences. The intricate details of parliamentary government rules are poorly understood in the United States. Luckily, the approach here manages to explain without condescending and drive the plot forward without tedious exposition dialogue. The balancing act is no small feat, and director Joe Wright deserves a great deal of credit. Indeed, Wright also deserves credit for enhancing mood and heightening tension with clever and vivid shots. A straight-forward cinematographic approach likely would have produced a boring, fairly pedestrian film. Instead, Darkest Hour is deeply compelling.

I’ve always been wary of films that recall historical events. Some movies, like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, have earned a reputation for accuracy. Still, even the best of these take liberties with the truth and sneak in bullshit just to ramp up the drama. I find this tendency troubling. Columbus didn’t think the earth was flat, and George Washington didn’t suffer a fit of honesty after cutting down a cherry tree. These myths endure because somewhere in history, these stories sounded better than the truth and became the accepted narrative. Even when these stories don’t make a lot of sense, like my two examples, it doesn’t really matter because people don’t give a lot of thought to stories that are of little real consequence to daily life. I understand why it happens. It just gives me the creeps. All that said, I’ll now get off my soapbox and confess to enjoying this movie.

Darkest Hour (2017)
  Director:  Joe Wright
Studio:  Focus Features
Genre:  Drama
MPAA:  PG-13
Release Date:  December 15, 2017
Author:  Jason M. Brown
Jason MBrown Seattle native Jason M. Brown traded liquid sunshine for the real thing when he recently moved to San Diego. Jason graduated from Washington State University with a Humanities degree focusing on English and has worked as a copywriter. An avid fan of comedy, horror, and almost any movie that started as a comic book, Jason lives in California, but still loves Seattle Seahawks football, apologies to the Chargers.

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