Some reviewers of “Darkest Hour” (for example, Kyle Smith and former U.S. Senator Jim Talent) have expressed disapproval at the film’s depiction of Winston Churchill, which they find historically inaccurate in details that seem to diminish the great man’s memory: in Gary Oldman’s vivid, Golden Globe-winning portrayal, Churchill enters 10 Downing Street as a mentally disorganized old man whose impulses drive his policies, and who lapses at times into self-doubt. The real Churchill, these critics point out, confronted the crisis of May 1940 with a far clearer mind and a steadier hand than the Churchill of the film.
Taken purely as factual propositions, these claims are accurate. But as criticisms of “Darkest Hour,” or even of just its Churchill character, they take no account of the film’s objectives and effects as a work of art.
In his own lifetime, Winston Churchill had entered the realm of art and legend as a crafted figure of wonder and inspiration, to no small extent through his own literary work. “Darkest Hour” belongs to this tradition, and nobody can doubt that its version of Churchill is meant to inspire. The legitimate question that the criticism of “Darkest Hour” suggests is how fictitious attributes of mental disorganization, impulsivity, and self-doubt were supposed to make Churchill more inspiring on screen rather than less. Here’s my attempt at an answer.
Chamberlain and Halifax, Elite Professionals
The story of “Darkest Hour” concerns a conspiracy by members of Churchill’s own war cabinet to have the new prime minister deposed and replaced within his first days of office, on the grounds that his uncompromising belligerence concerning Hitler was uninformed, irrational, and a threat to British security.
The conspirators, just-resigned Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the Tory insiders’ preferred successor, Viscount Halifax, are not only elite professionals, their roles represent professionalism to the audience. They are manifestly respected, experienced officials with nothing impulsive or disorganized about them. Their Tory faction in Parliament is so well-controlled its MPs decide whether to applaud a speech or remain silent by watching how Chamberlain manipulates a handkerchief. Chamberlain’s forced resignation from 10 Downing Street is viewed as an unfair slight to a capable public servant. The two plotters discuss their plan to oust Churchill calmly and methodically. The film depicts no military or political professional who thinks their hopeless view of Britain’s chances is controversial. Except one: the new prime minister.
Everybody in government also agrees that Churchill is not merely wrong but wrongheaded, and lacking the mental and emotional equipment for his office. Here “Darkest Hour” throws its audience a bit of a curveball, for Oldman’s characterization does nothing to challenge this judgment on its own terms. We and Churchill’s enemies alike behold a prime minister who is absolutely not a professional, and this is the significance of the screen Churchill’s disorganization, impulsiveness, and insecurity. The 2018 audience knows with the benefit of hindsight that Churchill is somehow going to prove a great, great leader. But his quality of leadership is invisible to professionalism on the screen, while the theater audience beholds it as a thrilling but unpredictable and almost unaccountable marvel, something entirely personal to Churchill himself as a human being, a kind of genius.
Thus while the ministers on screen are debating whether or not to negotiate with Hitler, the film is challenging its audiences to ponder what kind of personnel should be entrusted with the reins of national leadership: elite professionals, or unorthodox genius? “Darkest Hour” can be usefully understood as a permutation of “Amadeus”: bizarre but inspired “Wolfie” figure becomes prime minister, faces (but here survives) the intrigues of political Salieris, and bequeaths to posterity blessings beyond the imagination of elite credentials and consensus certitudes.
Churchill’s genius for leadership is also connected to his brief lapse of insecurity in “Darkest Hour.” The unique feature of Churchill’s leadership on the screen is that, unlike the elite professionals on his War Cabinet, he does not reflexively seek a position of security, and he understands that the security of the appeasers is merely an illusion.
The film’s Churchill has the fortitude—not the confidence, since he knows neither how his policy will end, nor how to avoid the terrible losses his nation will incur regardless—to confront the crossroads through which he must guide his country, and to gaze with open eyes upon the monumental risks that lie ahead, both for his people’s lives and for their way of life.
Without a solution to offer, he is a great leader, because he knows the price of giving up, and he finds the resources of survival where the professionals saw nothing, in the hearts of his people. Thus when Churchill wavers in his confidence it does not reveal weakness, but realism about the threat his political enemies pose. Like the threat posed by Hitler, he rises to deal with it.
The Myth of Democracy
The intrepid Churchill of “Darkest Hour” is not completely isolated, however. Some people come to trust him; but they, like Churchill himself, are not government professionals. While somberly dictating an order to a commander in France that is tantamount to a sentence of annihilation, Churchill observes his private secretary struggling with tears; he leads the young woman into the forbidden map room and personally (albeit testily) illuminates the blunt necessity of a strategy that offers the only hope of saving anybody. Later, Churchill learns how intimate the action in France is to his young employee; but when she acknowledges what is personally at stake for her, she does so with manifest recognition that her boss the prime minister bears the same intimate burden, multiplied by millions.
Churchill’s sovereign, King George VI, enters the story as a wooden puppet manipulated by Chamberlain and Halifax. He gets to know Winston Churchill as a person, and confesses to the old man’s face that he mistrusts and fears his temperament. But much later out of nowhere the monarch—a figurehead (i.e. nonprofessional) in government, but a human person who sincerely cares for and respects the British people—spontaneously shows up at Churchill’s residence and asks his wife to awaken him—when Churchill is told the King is at the door to see him he mumbles something like “which one?” George VI sits on the bed beside his groggy prime minister, who is in pajamas, and humbly shares his realization that the man whose temperament he fears also frightens Hitler, which makes him the right man to lead their country.
Finally, there is the flagrantly invented scene where Churchill impulsively ditches his limousine and goes down into the Underground, where a bunch of ordinary Londoners, awestruck at the sight of their prime minister, equipped with cigar, riding the train with them, find themselves consulted about whether negotiations with Hitler would be well-advised, and they all reply, “Never!” When moments later in speaking to the Outer Cabinet, Churchill in the film credits these people by individual name with intelligent observations that convinced him Hitler must be resisted to the last breath, the point is not to lessen Churchill’s credit for his own policy. It shows Churchill’s disdain for the advisors on his War Cabinet, who for all their professionalism lack the instinctive sense and courage of ordinary people like the men, women, and children he met and befriended on the London Underground.
This tale is the myth of democracy, now often derisively labeled populism. The elites of Washington, Westminster, Brussels, and academe everywhere, don’t believe this myth, and they don’t want others to believe it either. That is why Winston Churchill is so missed, and why “Darkest Hour” is so timely and compelling.