Art Meets Realpolitik: Winston Churchill and Darkest Hour

Blowhard. Buffoon. Dotard. Egomaniac. Madman. Warmonger. If you’ve been following American political news lately, you might think I’m referencing the gossipy allegations from Michael Wolff’s new book about President Donald Trump that leftist media and anti-Trumpers have glommed on to in their latest quixotic attempts to find something—anything—tangible to confirm the view they’ve held since November 8, 2016, that a duly-elected president should be removed from office.

 However, as viewers of the film Darkest Hour know, the pejoratives above were leveled against British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill long before The Donald was even born, in those tense days in 1940, when Churchill first became prime minister and all of Europe appeared doomed to fall to Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Even though Churchill’s previous warnings about the dangers of German re-armament proved correct, political rivals sought to neutralize his influence and strip him of power. Even members of his own party (especially Lord Halifax) considered him self-serving and intemperate, not particularly suited for Britain’s highest political office. Yet as this new film demonstrates, Churchill would figure far more prominently in history than those who sought to undermine him. Seventy-eight years later, his legacy lives on, and the detractors of his day have been relegated to supporting roles in his story.

In an era when elites decry “toxic masculinity,” perhaps it’s surprising that a movie like Darkest Hour would even be made at all. Churchill embodied the sort of “white male privilege” that virtue signalers condemn these days. A descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill was born into the British aristocracy at Blenheim Palace, an estate that makes Downton Abbey’s Higclere Castle look like a low-rent manufactured home. Nevertheless, as a young man, Churchill spoke with a lisp and often performed poorly in school. By sheer will, he would become one of the most prolific politicians and orators of the twentieth century and go on to win a Nobel Prize in literature. Largely self-educated, he developed an appreciation for Shakespeare and classical rhetoric that served him well throughout his political life. I suspect Shakespeare would have appreciated Churchill as well, and not because, as conservatives might argue, he possessed uncompromising moral standards. On the contrary, it’s Sir Winston’s larger-than-life persona that almost makes him seem like a character that could have sprung from the Bard’s imagination.

Churchill was certainly an effective leader because he was a pragmatist, a practitioner of realpolitik, who, in Britain’s “darkest hour,” understood the difficult task that needed to be done–and how it needed to be done. Yet he also had the skills and impulsive temperament of the artist, which allowed him to assess situations and people with equal parts reason and emotion.

Darkest Hour was easily the best film of 2017 on the strengths of the performances alone. Gary Oldman should win an Oscar for this role and will only be denied if the Academy cannot abide honoring a movie about a dead white guy/imperialist. In addition, the young Lily James, who plays Churchill’s personal secretary, deserves a Best Supporting Actress award. Her nuanced performance speaks for all women from Allied countries who did their parts behind the scenes to win the war. Without question, James will eventually rank with Vivien Leigh, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Emma Thompson as one of England’s most accomplished actresses.

Beyond the superb acting performances, what makes Darkest Hour stand out is its explorations of the behind-the-scenes political machinations at work at the highest levels of the British power structure. The film points out that despite being discredited for his support of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain and his political cronies still wielded enormous power and hoped to thwart Churchill at every turn. They ignored their own failings and taunted Churchill about his prior mistakes at Gallipoli and over the gold standard. Though he was a political insider, Churchill faced members of an entrenched “Deep State” who wore pacifism like a moral badge of honor. Unfortunately, his opponents were so frightened of repeating the horrors of World War I that they all but assured World War II. In contrast, the pragmatist Churchill understood that appeasers’ plans to approach Mussolini to help negotiate a peace settlement with Hitler were foolish. He says, “When will we learn that you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!???!”

Twenty-five years ago, another important film grappled with a similar point. The Merchant-Ivory production of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Remains of the Day dramatized how many within Britain’s and France’s aristocracy erred by placating Germany in the 1930s. This film is one of the late Christopher Reeve’s finest performances. He plays a 1930s American congressman who travels to a conference in England, only to watch in horror as the ruling elite bumble their way toward a second world war. At the final dinner, Reeve’s character confronts conference attendees:

The United States doesn’t want war, any more than you do. On the other hand, neither would we care for peace at any price, as some prices, you may find, are too outrageously high to pay…Lord Darlington is a classic English gentleman of the old school, decent, honorable, and well-meaning. So are all of you here, all decent, honorable, well-meaning gentlemen. But…you are, all of you, amateurs, and international affairs should never be run by gentlemen amateurs. Do you have any idea of what sort of a place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could just act out of your noble instincts are over. Europe has become the arena of realpolitik, the politics of reality, if you like. What you need is not gentlemen politicians but real ones. You need professionals to run your affairs, or you’re headed for disaster.

Despite hailing from the aristocracy, Churchill was able to transcend the “noble instincts” of his fellow gentlemen politicians and look at the interwar situation realistically. Perhaps what set him apart was his experiences in Western Front trenches during World War I. In addition, it’s just as likely that his avocation as a watercolor painter and student of  literature provided him with the creative insight that helped him avoid groupthink in the 1930s and 1940s.

The critiques of Darkest Hour have been mostly positive, though many reviewers consider the film inferior to the ponderous Dunkirk, which I reviewed here last summer. While Dunkirk certainly has merits, it is a less remarkable film than Darkest Hour because the latter provides such an indictment of collective conformity, a theme so timely in our modern era of virtue signaling and bandwagon admonitions to be on the “right side of history”–at least in terms of the ideas you verbalize. “Health care is a right, not a privilege!” and “No person is illegal!” are popular, feel-good refrains. The more difficult questions, like how we afford our magnanimity while not dooming working people to serfdom to the state, are problems never considered soberly and seriously.

Some conservative reviewers who tend to lionize Churchill have complained that the film portrays the prime minister in an unfavorable light— bumbling, relying on more competent women like his wife Clementine and his secretary to bring organization and stability to his chaotic approach to accomplishing tasks. Purists who’ve read a couple of biographies about Sir Winston even fall back on “the books are more accurate than the movie” declarations.  I disagree with such characterizations. The film provides a valid and reasonable interpretation of Churchill’s life. Churchill was certainly a self-assured, effective orator/rhetorician, but the reality he faced—that his homeland might actually be conquered by the Germans—would be enough to fill even the most strong-willed, confident person with doubts and fears. He certainly must have second-guessed himself given his mistakes in the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. In one scene Clementine says, “You have the weight of the world on your shoulders.” The stress he faced was enormous. Churchill did in fact have a light heart attack when he was visiting President Roosevelt in Washington in December 1941, right after Pearl Harbor. Also, he is said to have suffered with bouts of depression. That Oldman portrays Churchill as human being with failings and self-doubts emphasizes that Sir Winston’s courage and resolve in the face of fierce political opposition and the possible collapse of Great Britain were truly extraordinary.

As someone with extensive academic training in literature and history, I appreciate the complexity of Churchill as both an artist and politician. Attempts to understand Churchill’s personality exclusively from what can be gleaned from scholarly analyses provide only a limited insight into the man. An almost Shakespearean quote attributed to Lord Halifax in the film (but that really originated with American journalist Edward R. Murrow) is particularly apt: “[Churchill] mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Inspiring the British public to persevere during the frightening days of the Blitz is perhaps the reason many Britons to this day consider Churchill their greatest citizen.

For American audiences, Darkest Hour provides some important insights in the age of Trump and his Twitter battles with the likes of Kim Jong- un. Trump certainly cannot match the eloquence of Sir Winston, though his rhetorical put-downs show evidence of a quick wit. His “only Rosie O’Donnell” retort to Megyn Kelley’s debate accusation that he had called women “fat pigs” and other names demonstrates the skill to think on his feet. The showman Barack Obama was no great orator either, though you wouldn’t know it listening to the fawning press coverage he received. We haven’t had a truly deep thinker in the White House in my lifetime. (It might surprise a lot of people that George W. Bush was probably the most avid reader of any of our contemporary presidents, and “Dubya” is also a painter.)

Certainly, war is a frightening prospect. If confrontation and conflict can be reasonably avoided, they should be. But sometimes, placating tyrants only exacerbates an inevitable fight. Some may bristle at the in-your-face, “braggadocios” assertions of Type-A personalities. However, as historian Victor Davis Hanson points out in a recent National Review article, “The most creative artists always remind us of the role of irony and paradox — that great things can come from sometimes less than great men, that what appears dangerous is actually what is safe, what should seem good in theory proves awful in fact, what is supposedly proven beyond a doubt only all the more proves groupthink to be asininity. Outsiders who do not fit — and perhaps should not fit in civilization’s status quo — are sometimes the only ones who can save it from itself.”

I do not want to indulge in facile comparisons like Trump=Hitler, Trump=Richard Nixon, or Trump=Churchill. I understand that Trump ≠ Churchill. While I see a few distinct points of comparison between Donald Trump and Winston Churchill, I know they are completely different political figures. Still, their fearlessness and willingness to challenge the status quo are admirable traits they share.

Grade for Darkest Hour: A+  

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