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In Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman shines as Winston Churchill. But history takes a hit.

Joe Wright’s crowd-pleasing film raises familiar questions about myth-spinning and truth-telling.

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
Jack English / Focus Features
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Darkest Hour is a movie about Winston Churchill — but its true reason for being is to showcase the acting chops of its star, Gary Oldman.

If you look at the movie that way, it’s a very good one. Burying actors underneath multiple layers of prosthetics and asking them to affect accents and mannerisms of historic figures is very risky business (see this year’s films LBJ or Mark Felt), but when it’s successful, the double feat of acting and of imitation is almost certainly awards bait.

That’s why Oldman’s turn in Darkest Hour garnered Oscar buzz practically before it premiered. And it’s merited: Oldman is excellent in the movie, playing a jolly, idiosyncratic, sometimes conflicted version of the British prime minister.

But the movie Oldman is in isn’t as good as his performance. Darkest Hour is certainly engaging during its run time, but it’s weirdly forgettable after the fact.

Darkest Hour sets out to entertain and inspire, and it often succeeds, turning what could be a dry history lesson and a peek into the inner workings of the British government into an origin story for a historical figure who, in the minds of many, might as well be a superhero. But its director is more interested in myth-spinning than retreading history, and while it’s hardly unusual for movies based on real events to elide and trim the narrative to make it more cinematic, Darkest Hour — which so clearly wants to also comment on the present — and its triumphant conclusion leave a lingering unease.

Darkest Hour offers an engaging take on a statesman

Darkest Hour is the third installment, along with Their Finest and Dunkirk, in an inadvertent trilogy of 2017 films about the evacuation of Dunkirk. (No surprise coming from director Joe Wright, who gave us one of cinema’s most unforgettable renderings of Dunkirk beach in his 2007 film Atonement.) Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was a gloriously cinematic spectacle, an experience more than just a narrative, but its story focused on the ordinary soldiers whose lives were at stake, and who were certain, when they returned home, that they’d failed in their job.

Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, in contrast, stayed with civilians, telling the story of young filmmakers who worked at the Ministry of Information during the war and sought to boost morale by retelling stories of ordinary courage. A central part of watching that film involves feeling conflicted over how they had to change and streamline the true events in order to make them more palatable on the big screen — and thus be more inspiring to a beleaguered public.

Lily James and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Lily James and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.
Jack English/Focus Features

Darkest Hour is different from both of these films, in which Churchill is at best a peripheral character, heard and acknowledged from afar. But in sticking much closer to Churchill’s character, it has more in common with Their Finest than Dunkirk. And the similarities aren’t just in style, though they share the same mixing of buoyant good humor and poignant loss; Darkest Hour actually feels like the sort of film that the main characters in Their Finest are making, with the same benefits and the same drawbacks.

Darkest Hour presents us with a Churchill who has finally, after a career in politics, reached his goal: He is installed as the British prime minister after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), while war wages on the continent and threatens England itself. Faced with the imminent possibility of invasion, he famously declares that his country will defy Hitler and his forces “at any cost” and wage war.

But behind closed doors — and sometimes not-so-closed doors — his circle of counselors and tenuously allied politicians strenuously advise him to seek peace at any cost. And Churchill is conflicted, particularly when he thinks about the true human cost to the ordinary people of his country. (Darkest Hour is at pains to remind us that its hero comes from a position of privilege.)

The film builds something inspiring and entertaining out of the fog of wartime politics

Joe Wright is a reliably good filmmaker, fond of lush sets and sweeping shots, and though he’s stumbled a bit of late (most recently with Pan), Darkest Hour feels like a return to form for him. It’s a crowd-pleasing historical epic that knows when to keep moving and when to dwell on a moment, and it may be the upcoming awards season’s most broadly appealing work.

Because we’re afforded the distance that comes with time, we know — and likely have strong opinions about — how Darkest Hour’s story ends. But it’s good to be reminded that in the thick of it, it wasn’t at all clear that Hitler wouldn’t win, and the fate of a free Britain was seriously in doubt, especially given America’s reluctance to get involved. (One particularly memorable scene in the film features Churchill on the phone with President Roosevelt, begging him to let Britain have the ships it bought from the US “with the money that we borrowed from you.” No dice.)

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.
Jack English/Focus Features

But this is not really a movie about Britain or the war. It’s a showpiece about Churchill, who drinks copiously, makes rude gestures both on purpose and accidentally, and, though brusque at times, seems genuinely to care for the people around him, including his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), children, and secretary (Lily James), all of whom love him back. He works from bed and on the toilet and in the bath. His relationship with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is strained at first — the king clearly dislikes this slovenly replacement for the refined Chamberlain — but both men evolve as they figure out how to work together while the conflict abroad deepens.

And most of all, Darkest Hour gives us a Churchill who is at first resolute, but grows less certain as he considers the human cost of his decisions and is warned by others in the government of the potentially disastrous consequences of taking a stand against Hitler. In the end, it’s an encounter between Churchill and a group of civilians in a stalled Underground carriage — with the civilians adamant that Britain must stand against fascism — that convinces the prime minister to march into Parliament and declare that the country will never surrender.

Darkest Hour, like many historical films, invents some of its story — but in this case, it’s a problem

That Underground scene, as it turns out, is both heartwarming and totally fabricated. Watching it, it’s hard not to feel your heart swell with courage. Yes! We must stand against the fascists, and it’s the ordinary people who must hold their leaders accountable. There’s no more 2017-appropriate inspirational theme than that.

And yet that encounter on the carriage never happened. Does that mean Darkest Hour is spreading misinformation? Not exactly. Churchill did go on to stand his ground, and we know how that decision played out. That the Underground scene (and some others like it, which historians will surely spot) was imagined in order to make the story work on screen doesn’t change what happened in history.

But it still made me feel a little queasy. Throughout the film, Churchill and a few others struggle with whether it’s okay to fudge the truth in order to bolster the spirits of the population, a quandary made concrete in a radio address from Churchill to the nation that plainly misrepresents the facts of the war for reasons of public morale.

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.
Jack English/Focus Features

That’s the same question Their Finest approaches — and both films ultimately skirt the issue. But Darkest Hour goes one step further and embraces what it explores, becoming a movie that fiddles with the truth in service of inspiration. The only difference is the audience, and Darkest Hour doesn’t acknowledge that not everything portrayed in the film really happened.

In truth, viewers doesn’t have much reason to care. Fighting Nazis is good. Let’s be inspired to stand up for what’s right.

But that sleight of hand complicates matters. Should we fudge the truth, or represent fantasy as truth — without also explaining that it’s fantasy — to inspire people to do right? Historical filmmakers have struggled with this dilemma before, and they’ll struggle with it in the future. But it takes on a new shade of meaning in our so-called post-truth world. Where is the line between good storytelling and propaganda — and are the means okay if the ends are good?

Darkest Hour is a stirring film and an entertaining one, and it feels inspiring at the end of a trying year. But the question of whether its myth-spinning is earned is an important one, and to that end, the movie doesn’t have an answer.

Darkest Hour opens in theaters on November 22, 2017.

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