A LOOK AT 2017 FILMS NOMINATED FOR PROMINENT OSCARS
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Who would have imagined that amid the debris of over-produced super hero movies, Winston Churchill would emerge as a major figure in films released in 2017? The woefully underrated "Churchill" (click here for review) was first out of the box, chronicling the British Prime minister's tumultuous inner-grappling with the pending D-Day invasion, which he supported but dissented from Eisenhower and Montgomery as to where and when the great armada should land. (History happily proved his instincts wrong.) Brian Cox gave a magnificent portrayal of Churchill that was largely overlooked by critics and the public. Churchill's specter also looms largely over Best Picture nominee "Dunkirk", as it was he who ordered the evacuation of stranded British troops by an improvised "fleet" of private vessels, small and large. The second Churchill biopic, "Darkest Hour", has won raves for Joe Wright's direction, Anthony McCarten's script and the towering performance of Gary Oldman as Churchill. The role is one that any fine actor would relish but there are dangers in portraying the man, as the line between accuracy and playing a cartoon version is a thin one. Oldman succeeds brilliantly, capturing Churchill's many character flaws as well as his strengths. The movie confines itself to Churchill's uneasy ascension to being Prime Minister, a lifelong dream achieved under less-than-optimum circumstances. His successor, Neville Chamberlain (a superb Ronald Pickup, who bears an astonishing resemblance to the man) has been removed from office for failing to adequately stand up to Hitler's advances through Europe. (It was Chamberlain who had met with Hitler and proudly waved a meaningless treaty that promised "Peace in our time.) Churchill is no one's first choice to lead the nation in the coming struggle. He's regarded by his peers as temperamental, eccentric and questionable in terms of wisdom, with his disastrous WWI campaign at Gallipoli still haunting the nation. Furthermore, King George VI had little confidence in the decision to elevate Churchill to PM, but relented and gave approval only when it became clear that there was little choice.
The film traces Churchill's dilemma in those early days of the war. Things looked grim, indeed. Churchill knew it was essential for America to enter the conflict but, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation was in isolationist mode. In one of the most poignant scenes in "Darkest Hour", Churchill pleads over the phone with FDR for assistance, but the president explains his hands are tied by a congress that wants to remain neutral. The biggest crisis he faces is that France is rapidly falling to advancing German forces, leaving the cream of the British army stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk and awaiting annihilation. The movie painstakingly chronicles Churchill's inner struggles in dealing with the crisis. His first instincts are to resist until the end, giving his famous speech that the British people will fight on no matter where the enemy confronts them. However, he is under severe pressure from Chamberlain and Halifax to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler, an alternative that disgusts him but which seems practical to Parliament. The film gains tension even though we know how it all played out in the end. Churchill comes up with a desperate plan to enlist every available ship in the private sector to form a mini armada across the Channel to rescue the stranded troops. Before the operation can be completed, however, Churchill begins to cave and consider the option of a peace plan. This is where the script goes off kilter with a completely fictional scene in which Churchill gets a sudden desire to read the will of the people about their resolve to fight on. He jumps out of his limousine and makes an impromptu ride on the London Underground, chatting with astonished passengers and being reassured they support his strategy not to negotiate with Hitler. The scene is emotionally moving, but preposterous and more than a bit corny. Making matters worse, Churchill is only supposed to be on the train for a single stop but the journey seems longer than the one experienced by the people traveling to Siberia in "Doctor Zhivago". Bolstered by the resolve of the public, Churchill walks straight in to Parliament and gives an impassioned speech that rallies friends and foes alike. His judgment is ratified by the ultimate success of the Dunkirk operation, which turned a bitter defeat into a triumph.
The historical hokum presented in "Darkest Hour" is frustrating because it undermines the entire film. Why create a scene that so simplifies history when the real life scenario was even more dramatic? Nevertheless, there is much to admire in the film aside from Oldman's superb performance. Every supporting actor delivers the goods, with Ben Mendelsohn particularly good as King George. Unfortunately, Kristin Scott Thomas is largely reduced to a figurehead as Churchill's wife Clemmie. In "Churchill', the character, played by Miranda Richardson, engaged in constant contentious situations with her husband, which mirrored their real-life marriage. In "Darkest Hour", Clemmie simply smiles a lot and reassures ol' Winnie that things will be just fine. Despite the film's flaws, "Darkest Hour" is an engaging and admirable effort that should be seen. It has many virtues aside from the fact that it's probably sent the sale of cigars soaring.
("Darkest Hour" is nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture).