In “Darkest Hour,” Winston Churchill appears as an imperfect, but great, leader. Wiki­media Commons

On January 24, 1965, Winston Churchill died. The next day, Leo Strauss, a Jewish scholar of political phi­losophy who fled the rise of the Nazi regime, spon­ta­neously eulo­gized the late British prime min­ister to his stu­dents at the Uni­versity of Chicago.

The dif­ference between Churchill’s states­manship and Adolf Hitler’s tyranny, according to Strauss, had become a timeless lesson for everyone. 

“The con­trast between the indomitable and mag­nan­imous statesman and the insane tyrant – this spec­tacle in its clear sim­plicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time,” Strauss said.

“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman, depicts this lesson. It chron­icles the beginning of Churchill’s pre­miership in the summer of 1940, cul­mi­nating with his decision against nego­ti­ating a peace with the Nazi war machine. This depiction of Churchill’s resolve in the face of dis­aster is an expression of what Strauss taught: While Hitler com­manded his forces with total­i­tarian bru­tality, Churchill instead took strength from the British people and carried out their will.

On Dec. 16 in the Searle Center, Oldman joined the film’s pro­ducer Douglas Urbanski and College Pres­ident Larry Arnn for a panel dis­cussion of the film, which was screened on campus the night before. Arnn, a Churchill scholar, praised “Darkest Hour” for showing just how per­ilous the summer of 1940 was. Nothing about victory was inevitable.

“That moment wasn’t about trends or social move­ments. It was about a choice, and a prov­i­dential one at that,” Arnn said.

Because everyone knows the war’s outcome, the struggle for a film like this is keeping the audience on the edge of its seat. To achieve that sense of sus­pense, “Darkest Hour” is shot like a thriller. Wright, known for his 2005 adap­tation of “Pride & Prej­udice” and his 2007 war drama “Atonement,” uses light and motion in his cin­e­matog­raphy to com­mu­nicate both the stakes of the con­flict and Churchill’s lonely position. 

Unlike so many films about his­torical heroes, “Darkest Hour” does not engage in a revi­sionism that under­mines its subject’s greatness. Both Oldman and Urbanski said their admi­ration for Churchill grew as they worked on the movie, and that they came to under­stand the greatness it took to stand against fascism with little hope even for survival.

During the panel, Oldman recounted a visit he made to the Churchill War Rooms in London while doing research for the film. There, he saw the chair Churchill sat in during cabinet meetings and noticed small divots Churchill made on the chair’s arm by tapping his ring on it.

“In this piece of fur­niture, you can see his anxiety and stress,” Oldman said. “This was a man on fire with energy and a fixity of purpose. I tried to work that into my per­for­mance — acting isn’t just an intel­lectual activity.”

Hol­lywood and the enter­tainment media are abuzz with rumors that Oldman’s per­for­mance as Churchill may win him Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards. He deserves to win. 

While most actors depicting Churchill portray him as a grumpy drunk, Oldman’s Churchill is the ani­mated Churchill of the news­reels, con­fi­dently flashing the V‑for-Victory on his way to the next world-his­torical speech.

But Oldman takes his per­for­mance beyond hagiog­raphy by high­lighting the fits of depression Churchill suf­fered. Both sides of the man are important to under­stand his greatness; Oldman’s Churchill is no invin­cible superhero, and he is all the more worthy of won­dering at for his humanity. 

Based on the work of noted his­torian John Lukacs, espe­cially his book “Five Days in London: May 1940,” the film has received praise from Churchill scholars for its his­torical authen­ticity, with the exception of one sequence towards the climax of the film.

Screen­writer Andrew McCarten imagined a scene in which Churchill takes the London Under­ground to West­minster, and his con­ver­sa­tions with ordinary British sub­jects during the ride give him the courage to con­tinue the fight against Nazidom. 

Critics for a number of outlets have crit­i­cized the scene as an ahis­torical con­trivance — which it is. There is no record of Churchill ever taking such a trip. That said, the scene still conveys an his­torical truth about Churchill: He took his strength and courage from the people of the British Empire.

“Their will was res­olute and remorseless and, as it proved, uncon­querable,” Churchill said in a 1954 speech. “It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

In this sense, the message of “Darkest Hour” reflects the message of another 2017 war movie set in 1940, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”

Unlike “Darkest Hour,” Nolan’s film forgoes his­torical expo­sition. Instead, it focuses on the men enduring the war on the front­lines and their mirac­ulous sal­vation. Nolan strips down the war epic’s formula pre­cisely because he wants to show the remarkable courage of the average Briton which Churchill praised so highly.

Both films end with a recitation of Churchill’s June 4, 1940 “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. In “Dunkirk,” one of the rescued sol­diers quietly reads it aloud out of the news­paper, and in “Darkest Hour” Oldman per­forms it in all its glory.

The speech serves, in both cases, as an artic­u­lation of a deep truth: British resis­tance to the forces of tyranny saved the world. The days sur­rounding the evac­u­ation of Dunkirk may have been Britain’s darkest hour, but it was also her finest hour. 

“We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind our­selves and our stu­dents, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excel­lence,” Strauss said in his eulogy for Churchill. “For we are sup­posed to train our­selves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excel­lence and their vileness, their nobility and their tri­umphs, and therefore never to mistake medi­ocrity, however bril­liant, for true greatness.”

Churchill and the British people’s fight against Hitler’s onslaught was great because it rep­re­sents the triumph of civ­i­lization over sav­agery, the victory of freedom over despotism, and the primacy of good over evil. They rallied when the world needed them most. 

“It fell to me…to express [the British people’s] sen­ti­ments,” Churchill wrote in the second volume of his history of the war. “This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, over­pow­ering, sublime, which ran though our Island from end to end.”

The same white glow which then wreathed Great Britain and her allies now shines through in “Darkest Hour.” The film is a beau­tiful tribute to the greatness of the British people and the man who led them through the most ter­rible crisis of modern history.

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Michael Lucchese ‘18 is majoring in American Studies, and is a member of the Dow Journalism Program. In addition to the Collegian, he has also contributed to The Federalist, Acculturated, Conservative Review, and several other publications. In 2015, he reported on national security and foreign policy for Breitbart News. He also hosts a weekly radio show, The Michael Lucchese Show on Radio Free Hillsdale WRFH 101.7 FM. e-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @MichaelLucchese