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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Law School Dean's Oscars Preview: Darkest Hour

Darkest HourNicholas W. Allard (Dean Brooklyn), Reel Law: After the Darkest Hour, What Is Next?:

A Democracy in peril depends on leadership, a free press, and the willingness of the governed to abide by the rule of law.  As the Hollywood awards season rolls into high gear, theaters near you showcase vivid examples of all three.  Recent uplifting films such as Darkest Hour, depicting the noble courageous leadership of Winston Churchill, and The Post, spotlighting journalists putting their first amendment protection to good use by throwing back the covers on government lies and holding it accountable, both seem like timely, long-form, public service announcements.  They certainly offer more than entertaining excuses to consume a large bucket of popcorn.  Other films of the past year examine in very different ways the right and wrong of people taking law into their own hands.  The remake of the classic mystery Murder on the Orient Express; the much darker, more violent and grotesquely funny Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and the surprisingly riveting and humorous I, Tonya about the rise and fall of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, are actually on-screen morality plays and studies of vigilantism.  All of these five films dramatically delve into the importance and limitations of the rule of law in a just and free society.  They address issues that are not only now front and center in our law schools, but also in the grand public civics lesson engaging all of America about how our rule book, that is, our Constitutional system of limited self-government and laws, actually works. For starters we can begin here with Darkest Hour and then as the Academy Awards approach, offer subsequent commentaries reflecting upon how other new films relate to important questions of law and society.

Darkest Hour is ostensibly about events in 1940 but it certainly feels like a much needed salve for what ails us today.  Tough times are when we need most to be reminded of what can be accomplished when people join together on common ground to overcome threats to their shared values, interests, and very existence. Think about, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King's soaring "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech in Memphis in April, 1968, the night before he was assassinated.  Dr. King offered a vivid, panoramic view of history and explained why, even though the world was, in his words, "all messed up", and although in his lifetime America had not lived up to its ideals, he would choose to live even a few years longer in our country at that time over any other era or place.  Tragically, his personal dream was denied.  More recently, consider the annual year-end columns of Nicholas Kristof, the great New York Times commentator.  Kristof spotlights the stunning progress made during the course of the year, addressing major problems that benefit people everywhere.  He makes the case why each succeeding year is the best year in history, even though the world "seems to be going to hell".  Kristof is certainly no contemporary naive Dr. Pangloss who accepts the world as it is and who believes that it is the best of all possible worlds.  In fact, he has become for millions of readers the voice of their heart and conscience by railing against inhumanity, inequity, and injustice wherever it may exist.  Yet, in the similar spirit of the incomparable Dr. King, Kristof urges us to undertake together the work that must yet be done before civilization falls to pieces before our eyes.  While we can debate the “great person” theory of history, Darkest Hour showcases how a leader can rally people to support government to do what after all is its purpose in a democracy:  to do what people cannot do for themselves and overcome danger of unfathomable proportions.

While there surely are grounds for realistic optimism about making tomorrow better than today for ourselves and our children, there must be a sense of urgency about overcoming dangers which are greater than the world has ever faced.  We are closer to nuclear conflict than at any other time, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin airlift over 55 years ago.  Without doubt there is a daunting to-do list for the human race when you add to the prospect of nuclear war, the self-inflicted, destructive, cascading harms of climate change, pandemics and the countless unhealthy side effects of living in the modern world; catastrophic collapses of the digital, interconnected, electronic infrastructure we now are utterly dependent upon; and hostile and abhorrent acts by non-state movements and rogue nations, to mention just a few nasty challenges.

The World War Two drama Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright after impressive work on Pride and Prejudice andAtonement, start-to-finish, brilliantly answers any skeptic's question about why there needs to be yet another book, television program, or film about the already most chronicled, iconic figure of the twentieth century, Sir Winston Churchill. Wright’s cinematic take on a very thin but crucial slice of the great man's life stands out, even in a year featuring the release earlier this year of Dunkirk (the powerful battlefield perspective on the political and diplomatic events depicted in Darkest Hour, previously reviewed in this space), not to mention a third movie, the 2016 film Their Finest about the British civilians who made a propaganda film about the miracle evacuation of Dunkirk in the midst of the Blitz, and Churchill, also released in 2017 a much less interesting, paler, formulaic movie caricature of Sir Winston's diminished role in the later Normandy invasion.  Director Wright even outdoes himself in that his own earlier film Atonement included powerful images of Dunkirk.

There really is only one serious problem with Darkest Hour.  That is, it tempts the unworthy to identify with Churchill, believing their shortcomings may be excused and even encouraged because they are underappreciated, misunderstood geniuses who alone know what is best.  If one is unpopular, unpersuasive, or unsuccessful, it is indeed an intoxicatingly, soothing thought when facing contrary facts, criticism and rejection to believe that, like Churchill, time or history will be kind and even forgive personal quirks and bad behavior. Sure enough, apologists for President Trump, like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, have made the preposterous claim that the film made them feel that Trump is this century's Churchill.  The suggestion is absurdly ridiculous.  As a soldier, young Winston fought in 15 battles from what is now Pakistan to the tip of Africa, receiving 14 medals for bravery, including earning his spurs as a sabre and pistol wielding officer riding with the 21st Lancers in the last cavalry charge by the British army in the 1898 battle of Omdurman, Sudan; not quite like the current occupant of the White House whose heel spur excused him from any military service.  As a uniformed military correspondent during the Boer War, Churchill was captured during an attack on a derailed armored train he was trying to repair and defend, held as a prisoner of war, and made international headlines by escaping alone and making his way back to England.  In World War I, after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign for which Churchill, as Lord of the Admiralty, took anguished responsibility and departed from government, he resumed active army service on the western front in the trenches as a battalion commander in the Royal Scots Fusiliers where, in his spare time, he had a big role in developing the modern motorized tank.  Sir Winston's government service is also different than Governor Huckabee's hero.  He was a member of parliament for 55 years, 31 as a government minister and 9 as Prime Minister.  One of history's great orators, with a penchant for rallying people and countries to come together in common purpose, as he did in memorable speeches before Congress and other United States venues, he was a prolific, outstanding writer who published considerably more pages than Shakespeare and won a Nobel Prize for literature.  So, Governor Huckabee, it is hard to put the two in the same league even though the President apparently feels he is the Hemingway of 140 characters.  In truth, Churchill was one-of-a-kind, whose likes the world may never see again.  Lest we get too misty-eyed behind the rosy lenses of Hollywood’s retrospection it is important to acknowledge that Churchill was a flawed man of his time with views on imperialism, race, gender and other matters that would be appalling for a leader in today’s world.  Yet it is also important to note that his self-assuredness and contrariness were informed by, and with deep understanding of, the uses and limits of government, his fierce preference for advanced democracy over authoritarian autocracy like the fascist Nazis, and his personal experience of the horror of conflict.  The true lessons of  Darkest Hour are how difficult and risky it is to chart a lonely course of public action to achieve successful change, and how necessary it is to work through the constitutional system of governance while building political support based on a consensus of all the people, rather than a faction of a few. 

There are other reasons to see Darkest Hour.  The acting throughout the film is exquisite.  The entire cast, like a superbly tuned and conducted orchestra transports audiences to the now otherwise difficult to imagine fearful moment when Hitler's army was poised to complete its takeover of the European continent and to annihilate virtually the entire British Army trapped on the French shores of the English Channel.  Academy award nominee and Golden Globe winner Gary Oldman's transformation into Churchill is jaw dropping.  While owning and becoming unrecognizably lost in the role, he turns in one of the most memorable performances of his fine career.  Remarkably, Oldman largely resists the scenery eating approach to portraying the epically larger-than-life and sometimes cartoonish image of how Britain’s greatest man is often remembered.  This creates space for the rest of the marvelous cast to make marvelous contributions, which they do without exception.  A captivating example is the chemistry that develops between the impossibly difficult, demanding Churchill and his new personal secretary, played with enormous appeal and nuance by Lily James. With Oldman as her perfect foil, James is able to let shine the stunning talent she previewed in roles from Downton Abbey to her irresistible turn as the ingénue waitress in the astounding Baby Driver (perhaps the most underappreciated film of the year as Oscar time nears.)  On duty 24/7 the young secretary unexpectedly catches glimpses of Churchill’s privates as he awkwardly leaps out of bed or splashes his way out of his midday bath while spewing a torrent of words for her to take down.  Oldman handles these scenes with the oblivious indifference of a self-centered person used to the constant presence of others at all hours and places.  And so the audience’s attention shifts each time from Oldman to Lily James who wonderfully conveys in a fleeting moment a full pallet of emotions from surprise, to shock, to embarrassment, to bemusement, to struggle to regain her focus on the tasks at hand.  There are many warm moments between the famous boss and dedicated assistant, which is not what would be expected from their initial meeting.  The scene where the prim but street smart typist tutors the Prime Minister about how not to flourish his famous “V” for victory sign because, as she delicately explains, his “knuckles out” version means “up your bum”, and her strength and virtue matched by his empathy when he learns that her brother is a soldier trapped in France, are among the highlights.

Kristen Scott Thomas is pitch-perfect as Clementine.  Her portrayal convinces us that there would have been no Great Man but for her.  In this role, Scott Thomas adds another to the many luminous performances she has brought to the screen by imbuing Clementine with quiet, radiant strength and wisdom.  Oldman in turn speaks volumes often by simply listening when he is with her on screen.  Scott Thomas’ Clementine and he both know she is the one person who, because of her genuine love, respect, and unselfishness accepts second place to his duty to his country, and the fulfillment he gets from pursuing his ambitions.  In turn, she, perhaps alone, is the one person who can tame his worst excesses and whose judgement he trusts. 

Churchill’s political adversaries in his own conservative party in the film are the gentlemanly and proper, dying former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose policy of attempting to appease Hitler failed so miserably, and Viscount Halifax, the Foreign Secretary.  As Chamberlain, Ronald Pickup delivers a much more complex, principled and stronger figure than the unfortunate Chamberlain has usually been portrayed.  Stephen Dillane’s serpentine, clever and confident Halifax is a worthy rival for Churchill.  Taking on the Prime Minister jaw-to- jaw, Halifax engineers a government crisis in May, 1940 and nearly forces a peace settlement with Hitler to be brokered by Italian leader Mussolini.  In effect, the skill and power of these multidimensional adversaries who Churchill manages to outmaneuver elevate his heroic accomplishment, against all odds, of overcoming those who sought acquiesce to Hitler rather than continuing to fight.  Ben Mendelsohn picks up where Colin Firth left off in The King’s Speech by further burnishing the legacy of King George VI.  Mendelsohn’s King George offers a brilliant, understated tutorial on the use of limited power and the value of leaders who have courage and character in the service of ideas larger than themselves.  At least in Darkest Hour, but for King George, like Clementine, there would not be a “V” for victory, nor iconic legend of Churchill.

One would expect the screenplay to be rich as an English pudding, chock-a-block full of memorable quotes and phrases given the staggering abundance of authentic material from the protagonist’s real life and work.  What is remarkable is how much crackling and original dialog by Anthony McCarten keeps the well-known story fresh and moving with lines that seem so Churchillian that if he didn’t actually say them, he should have.  When asked by an initially skeptical and unimpressed King George at one of the first of their regular weekly working lunch, while Churchill is greedily tucking into a roast and washing it down with flagons of wine, ”how do you manage the drinking during the day?” “Practice”, replies Churchill, without interrupting his attack on a well lubricated lunch.  In a shouting match during the Cabinet war room crisis Churchill cuts off a bold forceful Halifax with, “will you stop interrupting me whilst I am interrupting you!”  Later, a frustrated Halifax says of Churchill, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”  Churchill derides the wimpy Clement Atlee as, “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”  The script goes far to both relieve the awful tension of the plot and also remind us that Churchill was just a mortal man; a man who was caught often having not yet put his trousers on one leg at a time.  He warns his secretary while exiting the tub, “I’m coming out in a state of nature!”  He also yells out from the W.C. to his gathered aides that he cannot speak on the telephone to the Lord Privy Seal because he is “sealed on the privy!”

Which brings up the obvious point that the filmmakers have fictionalized some parts of this movie.  Most noticeably this is the case in a scene when Churchill descends unaccompanied into the underground to ride the tube to a critical political showdown in Westminster, and on this (short two-stop) trip he talks with the other passengers and takes an informal survey of whether they support fighting on or surrender.  The scene is entertaining, corny, and in a ham-handed way it introduces some modern day diversity into the casting, but it never happened.  A person of privilege, and a spoiled man-child in many respects, Churchill when at Sandhurst military college had to be told to put paste on his toothbrush to make it foam because someone always cleaned his teeth for him, and he probably never boiled an egg, so he most likely never rode the tube alone.  The scene certainly works, inspires, entertains and keeps the story going.  One could suppose that this is all fair game and within the artistic license of the filmmakers.  But in a time when politics and governance are riven with “alternative facts” and the mantra of “fake news” it seems that it matters that we know where and what the truth is, that we can separate history from myth.  InDarkest Hour the line between storytelling for the purpose of making a point and propaganda meant to confuse and hide the truth seems sufficiently clear, indeed more so than in Their Finest which dramatizes a government produced war film about the same events.  Besides, after a year of relentlessly disturbing news of all sorts we might be entitled to simply enjoy a movie that gives us hope that there is light after darkness.

Coming soon:  Legal perspectives on The Post, followed by additional installments featuring other recently released award worthy films.

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