The Academy Awards have a way of bringing them out: largely ordinary films that could only have been made by experts at their craft. A lot of what can be said for Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s Best Picture nominee about Winston Churchill, could be said about any number of Oscar-bait films, including several by Wright, and including The King’s Speech, with which it shares a historical moment and a major character. The virtues of Wright and his team can’t be discounted. The cinematography and editing have a forceful precision, the acting is top-notch, and the story is swift and economical—again, we are in the hands of professionals. What blunts its effectiveness is a lack of distinction, or rather the question of what lasting value its effectiveness actually holds. It is, crisp imagery and all, a rather expected Great Man docudrama, the sort of basic retrospective where a hero achieves greatness by insisting on doing X when everyone around him says the only possibility is Y. It confirms mainly that a) Academy Voters of a Certain Age remain helpless to resist Brits in period costume, and b) the Best Actor race tends to demand not just the emotional immersion of good acting, but a degree of fussy transformation. Gary Oldman, nailing the accent and mannerisms under several layers of fake flab, is considered more or less a lock to win the Oscar for his Churchill. When he does, I can’t complain. But I’d take his subtler, implosive, enigmatic performance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy nine times out of ten.
So what’s most interesting about Darkest Hour is less the film itself, which is undeniably engaging for what it is, but rather the circumstances that surround it. So, without further ado, and given that it is the most conventionally Oscar-y of this year’s Oscar films, here are a few loose notes on awards season inspired by Darkest Hour…
First, there is the manner in which I was able to see it. It was available, legally and from the comfort of my own apartment, for VOD streaming only six weeks after its wide theatrical release date. That’s one of the narrower windows I’ve seen for such a high-profile A-list production, and it’s Exhibit M that, in an era where big box office and Oscar bets have been drifting out of sync, the calculus of how a distributor can take advantage of awards hype is changing.
Second, there is the serendipity that Darkest Hour is sharing the Best Picture slate with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is about the same event, ends on the same speech, and does so in such a vastly different way that the Academy couldn’t have created a more instructive double bill if it tried. And Nolan’s decision to have a collective main character—that is, no particular main character at all—stands as a much more interesting way to take on history than viewing it through the lens of a Great Man.
Third, as long as we’re talking about Best Picture nominees, Darkest Hour can rub shoulders with Steven Spielberg’s The Post. As a general principle, a new Spielberg film means far more to me than a new film by Wright. The Post, which I reviewed at length here, is not one of Spielberg’s best. It has some utterly mind-boggling things wrong with it, but its rough edges and topical bluntness certainly feel like they come from some personal desire. So as a thought experiment, I set the two movies side by side and found that I preferred the immaculate polish of Wright’s film to the wonky sincerity of Spielberg’s. Auteurist principles have their uses, but they can also make for unsatisfying nights at the movies.
And finally, there is the pull-quote I see on the poster every time I walk down Santa Monica Blvd. “Darkest Hour is the movie we need right now,” raves the Washington Post, for showing us the kind of steadfast leadership in such short supply. I can’t say the film didn’t goose me to inspiration, yet there is something vaguely ominous these days about spending two hours rooting for a world leader to go to war. Churchill/Oldman’s hero’s quest is to fend off pressure for appeasement and commit to all-out combat where it’s either us or them. Only the most contrarian history buff could blame him; his opponent was literally Hitler. But the film’s characterization of Churchill—an unconventional leader, eccentric in his personal habits, bellicose by nature, not exactly polite, regarded with distrust by the political establishment, connecting directly with the hoi polloi, and promising to be a tough man for a tough time—sounds a lot like the reason so many Americans voted for Donald Trump, even if they got a tacky gold-plated imitation instead. I doubt the filmmakers or the Washington Post had that idea on their mind when thinking of the leader we need; the opposite is far more likely. But that, essentially, is the only aspect of Darkest Hour that feels raw, like it wouldn’t have been exactly the same at an Oscar season ten or twenty years ago. Like Dunkirk, or The Post for that matter, the movie ends with the real battle only just on the horizon. I can only hope its idea of importance is the stuff of stodgy period pieces.
Darkest Hour is available on Amazon, iTunes, and at a theater near you. Whatever floats your boat.