The scene: The light of a cathedral radio as regal as it is reverential, with its faceplate set aglow, while kith and kin listen to the crackle of a fireside chat instead of gathering before the crackle of an evening fire. They assemble before this cabinet of twisted columns and hand-carved slots, and a voice emerges from the arches and cloth of this product of industry and this fixture of hope in the darkness. Meanwhile, Nazis rally before an obscene cathedral of light.
In “Darkest Hour,” which is certain to be actor Gary Oldman’s finest hour, the contest is not between light and darkness; it is an attempt to free all Europe and move the life of the world forward into broad, sunlit uplands; it is a warning about the price of failure, of sinking into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
The film is a study of how an actor prepares. It is a performance by England’s greatest living actor on behalf of the greatest Englishman who ever lived. It is a story about Britain’s most important prime minister—and the 20th century’s most indispensable man—whose most decisive words were words of action, whose most dramatic deeds were declarations of resolution and defiance, whose most magnanimous honor was the honor he entrusted to the individuals and institutions of his island nation––that they would sooner die for king and country than surrender to slavery and torture; that the cross of Christendom would never fall to the crooked cross of Hitler and the SS.
Oldman gives us the definitive portrayal of Winston Churchill. He prepares for his role by showing us why a leader thinks before he speaks. He shows us how melodrama is the only way to dramatize a battle between a champion of freedom and a monstrous abortion of hatred and defeat. He shows us how one man, mocked and ridiculed by members of his own party, and disliked by his own sovereign, forgave the former and fortified the latter. He shows us how one man summoned the best from his people with the best selections from a common history of religion, laws, language, literature, and tradition.
Churchill steeled himself for this role by virtue of his intuitive sense of timing, of knowing when reason must yield to romance, when intellect must yield to instinct, when good men must do something—anything—to stop the triumph of evil. He spoke for a group of shattered states and bludgeoned races, whose conquest owed as much to the appeasement of Germany as it did to Nazi aggression. He sought to rescue them; to redeem them, too, not with the spoils of war, but with the swords of justice; to resurrect, in the end, a Teutonic race that would live to remember its crimes, including a crime with no name, that is the worst crime in history against the Jewish people. His words did much to remake West Germany with the plowshares of peace, as spears became pruning hooks—and the fascist work of Albert Speer was reduced to rubble.
This is the Churchill Oldman gives us. This is the Churchill we deserve, with this actor’s patented roar. This is the Churchill who fought the fire of the Reich with the fury of right. This is the Churchill who thwarted a thousand years of tyranny by bracing Englishmen to do their duties, and so bearing themselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
This was the only man who matched—and surpassed—the rhetorical power of Hitler. This was the man who had warned Britain about this enemy of all freedom-loving people; an enemy to whom millions had sworn their obedience, and their lives, to this supreme leader of the fatherland; an enemy for whom the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was dead and to whom the few of religious conscience was as good as dead; an enemy for whom there was a never-ending need for “living space,” but never any space for the least among them; an enemy for whom Jesus was the Son of God because He was not a son of Jews; an enemy for whom God was without any traces or taint of Jewish blood. Thus did this enemy grant himself an Aryan god’s blessing to murder the Jews.
Churchill refused to negotiate with this man. He rejected the very idea of coexistence with this disgrace to humanity; this human acolyte of Satan. He renounced the authority of a regime that many admired and that even more accepted as inevitable. To Churchill, this was unacceptable.
“Darkest Hour” is an homage to the art of performance. It reveals that great men make history, not because their actions are always right or good, but because they never waver from a just cause. They never doubt a fundamental truth—that if an evil as wrong as slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong; that if man does not fear evil, mankind should fear for its survival.
This truth is the product of an Anglo-American alliance. This fact is a universal truth of the history of the English-speaking peoples. It is a self-evident truth that marks the graves of patriots and graces the tombs of heroes. It is never free from the threat of extinction, not when each generation is an endangered species susceptible to lies.
Winston Churchill was the last lion and the defender of the realm. These titles were earned mightily and exercised modestly. They were the effect of an idealized version of all that Britain was, and all that Britain meant. They were the result of a policy to wage war until victory was won, because the alternative was a long nightmare of servitude and shame.
In that darkest hour, came Trinity Sunday. The light of Providence broke through the clouds of the gathering storm; the glory of God rang from every pulpit—and echoed from every pew—strengthening the will of Christian civilization.
Armed with truth, and awakened by the coming of the Lord, Englishmen chose to be men of valor.