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December 29, 2017 » 11:26 am

Darkest Hour: Nuanced Historical Flick or Meme-ish Schlock?

Darkest Hour is about the World War II events that took place in Great Britain from May 10 through June 4, 1940 — Neville Chamberlain’s resignation as prime minister, Winston Churchill’s ascension, France falling to Nazi Germany (including the siege at Calais), the miraculous evacuation of over 330,000 British troops at Dunkirk, all culminating in Churchill’s decision not to enter into peace talks with Hitler, which led to the Battle of Britain.

I enjoyed the movie. It was entertaining, well crafted, and beautifully acted, and I think the choice to focus on that single, eventful month was an excellent one. Gary Oldman is physically the exact opposite of Churchill, yet he absolutely disappears into the role. I also thought the movie was nicely and importantly nuanced until the end (where it devolves into a schlocky mess).

In particular, it highlighted Churchill’s spotty track record prior to his ascension, his politically precarious position, and the strategic, emotional, and moral complexity around decisions that will unavoidably cost lives. It offered a little taste of coalition politics, which I find especially fascinating these days as I wonder about the future of the two-party system in the U.S. I also felt more empathetic to the strongly differing viewpoints of the time, especially to Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax. It’s so much easier to judge when you have the benefit of hindsight.

I wouldn’t say the ending ruined the whole movie for me (a surprising sentiment, given that I knew what was going to happen), but I didn’t like it. It lost its nuance. First, there was an incredibly grotesque, entirely fictional scene where Churchill decides to take the subway to Westminster Station so that he can mix with the people. It’s a cheap, gimmicky device made even worse by the inclusion of the one person of color in the entire movie.

Then, all semblance of nuance disappeared, and it became a series of will-of-the-people, fight-until-the-end propaganda piece. Which, in some ways, was accurate. Churchill’s strengths were his way with words and his ability to inspire. Earlier in the film, they did touch on the difficult balancing act between looking disastrous reality in the face while also maintaining hope, which I appreciated.

I get why the movie ended the way it did. It would have been too complicated, for example, to try to explain that the Battle of Britain, while heroic and extraordinary, would likely have been futile had Japan not attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. not entered the war.

I’m okay with the ending. I just didn’t like it. And I especially hated the fact that the movie ended with this inspirational “Churchill” quote:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

Here’s what the International Churchill Society has to say about this quote on a page entitled, “Quotes falsely attributed to Winston Churchill”:

We can find no attribution for either one of these and you will find that they are broadly attributed to Winston Churchill. They are found nowhere in his canon, however. An almost equal number of sources found online credit these sayings to Abraham Lincoln — but we have found none that provides any attribution in the Lincoln Archives.

Falsely sourcing quotes is a pet peeve of mine. I get why they might have created that idiotic subway scene. But why end the movie Internet meme style? It was lazy and unnecessary, and it summed up how the overall ending of this otherwise solid movie was for me.

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