In “Darkest hour,” what Gary Oldman’s Churchill has to contend with in a time of war reminded me of what a newspaper editor does: tense negotiations, the reworking of sentences, an overarching need to get the message out, loudly and clearly. The real context of the story, the history, is, evidently, a very different one from this. In the early forties European countries were falling like dominoes as Hitler’s panzer division closed in, on land, and Luftwaffe planes dropped bombs. Belgium has capitulated, the French gave in and 300,000 British soldiers were waiting to be evacuated at Dunkirk, like so many lambs, waiting to be slaughtered, as German troops were advancing on them. What to do? The pressure on Churchill and his cabinet was deathly. They needed nationwide rallying around a singular idea. Feeding the public the right story, the one that’d stick, edify and motivate, that was his most important task and Churchill became famous for achieving just that. Whereas his cabinet’s most influential figures, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, wanted to negotiate peace with Hitler, Churchill sold the case for war to the British public, he made them taste victory, even though, as a small circle of Britain’s leaders knew, England would be pounded by German bombs for years after that.
The powers of language to influence and inspire, this was the landmark of Churchill’s brief but extraordinary time as premier of Great Britain. Joe Wright, the British filmmaker who gave us “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” does a great job of putting this Churchillian concept of oratory at the fore. And while I haven’t seen any of the other Churchills, Gary Oldman (who in spite of the brilliant prosthetics, does not look like Churchill but a very convincing alter-ego) rises to the near-impossible task of portraying one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures, all stolidness and wit, with mystery and bravado, but also with a fragility (oh, how I would’ve loved to have been present in the room when the actor first received the news that he was being considered for the role of Churchill, however did he envisage this?). The actor who played Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy” and Stansfield in “Leon” is just awesome to watch.