Unbroken Bulldog

A daring performance by one of our most reckless actors.

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour," a Focus Features release.
Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s "Darkest Hour," a Focus Features release.

It’s that time of the year when Oscar fever is mounting. The hype seems more exaggerated every year as we pretend to be buzzing over which films and performances are best. Yet the word “fever” is a warning. We seldom volunteer for soaring temperatures, aching joints and impaired reason. Could the diagnosis of Oscar fever be an attempt to mask the mounting suspicion that we don’t really care? Is it cynicism or cool to wonder if this manufactured hysteria distracts from how many of our mainstream movies are bad, dumb or worthless? Telltales of an ailing movie business? The myth of Oscar’s fever season clings to the hope that we still trust the Academy Awards as a proof of quality.

As it happens, I have seen one movie that I can recommend with a clear conscience for Oscar season. It’s called “Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright, in which Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill, the intemperate outcast who found himself prime minister of Great Britain in May 1940 as a German onslaught prepared to squeeze the British Expeditionary Force off a beach called Dunkirk.

Cast and crew filming on the set of director Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour," a Focus Features release.
Cast and crew filming on the set of director Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” a Focus Features release.

We take Churchill for granted nowadays: He is the hero in our soft-minded and cliched interpretation of modern history. You know about Dunkirk because another film was set there in 2017: the immense, prettified mood piece offered by Christopher Nolan.

I prefer “Darkest Hour because it respects history and the chaotic personality of Churchill. Chaotic, you ask? In that heroic, lovable bulldog? Well, the film makes it clear that Churchill at 65 was a helpless alcoholic, a manic depressive with reckless ideas, uncontrollable emotions and a perilous ego that could lunge out in impulsive actions. He was a politician loathed and mistrusted by many Brits in 1940. He had a bad track record as an ideas man.

If you feel that goes too far, or threatens feverish hero worship, recall how in the summer of 1945, after Churchill had “saved Britain and won the war,” he still was voted out of power in a landslide victory for the Labour Party. Even in victory, enough people feared “Winny” and the ruling culture he stood for.

Reading this, you may be reminded of the fever of a more recent American leader, seemingly itching for a war to win. No need to name him, and good professional reasons for not doing so: He could be gone by the time you read this. Still, one of the subtlest points about “Darkest Houris its way of showing how contemporaries of Churchill feared for the country under his leadership.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman star as Clementine and Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour," a Focus Features release.
Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman star as Clementine and Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” a Focus Features release.

That’s where Oldman’s performance is so daring. Churchill has become a kind of Santa in movies. There’s always a Churchill on offer, and he is eccentric, lovable and endearing. In “The Crown,” John Lithgow moved his portrayal slightly more toward reality, and he won an Emmy. But Oldman – never ingratiating – completely strips away the veneer. He is a reckless actor, and I think he feels that Churchill is not so far from the Sid Vicious he once played in “Sid and Nancy” — unique, potent but scary.

There is a monster in celebrity, and “Darkest Hour recognizes that in Churchill. The movie is all 1940, but it seems aware of our present condition, in which bold-type mania has become a delusional normality.

So history goes begging. “Darkest Hour is more realistic than “Dunkirk in showing how many British politicians wanted to make peace with Hitler that spring. But neither film allows a graver admission — and one that undercuts the sturdy bulldog legend — that Hitler held back at Dunkirk. He did not unleash the tanks that would have destroyed the British army. In his way, he permitted the valiant rescue in small boats of more than 300,000 men. Why? Because Hitler hoped a peace would be negotiated, while fearing the Channel invasion that would be required without it. He believed the Soviet Union was his real enemy, not Britain. Britain never quite understood that the Red Army won the war in Europe.

That does not discredit the courage or eloquence of Churchill, or diminish the way he rose to the crisis. But Oldman’s inspired and unsentimental portrait of a disturbed man reminds us to stay loyal to real history and a calm assessment of the crazy things happening to us. We can elect not to buy into fever seasons. We can determine that Oscar is a silly game, unworthy of us or good movies.


Great Movies About Leadership

“12 Angry Men,” Sidney Lumet (1957): Twelve men do not an army make — or a nation — but in this classic, the calm, skeptical reasoning of Henry Fonda is a model of leadership by persuasion.

“Saving Private Ryan,” Steven Spielberg (1998): Tom Hanks is the commander with shot nerves and an obscure mission. His task is to send men to their deaths while remaining likeable and mysterious.

“Black Hawk Down,” Ridley Scott (2001): In combat, trained men are their own leaders, and this study of defeat in Mogadishu is a tribute to service in which we hardly notice movie actors.


“Darkest Hour”

  • Directed by Joe Wright
  • Starring Gary Oldman
  • Focus Features
  • Opened Nov. 22

    David Thomson, born and raised in England, is a longtime resident of San Francisco.
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