Gary Oldman’s Churchill Is the Finest of Them All

The actor’s turn in <em>Darkest Hour</em> stands apart

At some time or another every beset political leader is convinced he or she has an inner Winston Churchill. The larger-than-life prime minister of Britain during World War II is the patron saint of those who defy overwhelming odds and sail against the wind, who are right when everybody else is wrong at the most crucial juncture, dominating events by sheer force of will. A lone voice in the wilderness refusing to appease Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich rampaging across Europe in the late 1930s, Churchill would be the stuff of fable if he weren’t the stuff of history; he’s one of democracy’s relatively rare examples of bullheadedness verging on an arrogance that, following a lifelong record of missteps and miscalculations, manages to ultimately justify itself, morphing into a vision that’s weaponized by rhetoric. The proper American corollary—unless it’s Churchill himself, who was half American—is Abraham Lincoln almost a century earlier, also confronting national catastrophe. But the influence of Churchill’s experience can be dangerous. It’s altogether possible that this very minute a contemporary figure of orangish persuasion tells himself that the dismay and contempt of two-thirds of his fellow countrymen is proof he’s doing exactly what he should, which is whatever he wants.

One of the best things about Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is that, watched from an objective perspective, it’s not hard to understand why those around the aging Churchill dismiss him as a cranky, over-the-hill warmonger. The recorded facts of 1940 being what they are, the new British prime minister might well appear “delusional” about the prospect of opposing Hitler’s military machine—at that time the greatest the world had seen—while the virtual entirety of British army forces is stranded on a French beach and all Churchill has are his words. But however much we choose to withstand hagiography, the record also argues that in the 20th century nobody was more singly responsible for saving Western civilization. If there’s a flaw in Wright’s film, it’s by way of the inner Spielberg—dramatizing what doesn’t need further drama—that directors can’t resist any more than politicians can resist their inner Churchills. The picture’s weakest scene takes place on the London Underground, where Winston mingles warmly and fuzzily with the common folk. As well the movie can’t help ratcheting up its inevitable showstopper, Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons (“we shall never surrender”) following the rescue of the British military at Dunkirk. This was an episode of valor still so astonishing three quarters of a century later—and of which many Americans remain ignorant—that my inner cornball could have used a little more inner Spielberg this past summer from Christopher Nolan’s technically brilliant but emotionally muted Dunkirk.

Illustration by Andre Carrilho

Nolan’s movie ends with the same speech, and in fairness it’s one of those orations that so rose to the occasion as to define it. A filmmaker is no more likely to forgo it than Spielberg would Lincoln’s second inaugural in 2012’s Lincoln even after already killing off the main character. Contrasted with Gary Oldman’s soaring rendition in Darkest Hour, what’s interesting about the actual speech is how it was delivered more flatly than rousingly by a leader stating a blunt truth, which was that his country had dodged a bullet rather than won anything but a reprieve; it’s precisely this directness that gave the speech its power and still does. In any event there’s been a lot of Churchill in the zeitgeist lately. It can be a mistake sometimes to over-interpret popular culture—especially movies that are years in the making, conceived in one zeitgeist and fulfilled in another— but for reasons having to do with clarity of principles, perhaps, or a nostalgia for leadership uncomplicated by doubt, since 9/11 the wartime lion has been everywhere, played by Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, Brian Cox, and John Lithgow, among others.

All are fine actors, and several of these portraits went on, deservedly, to win Emmys. Historical variances and unnecessary flourishes notwithstanding, however, Oldman’s Churchill is in another league; the closest comparison, as it happens, is Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln for Spielberg. Giving due credit to some jaw-dropping makeup, this is a performance for which were invented clichés about actors disappearing into their roles, extraordinary enough to make you forget until the picture is over not only that it’s Oldman but that three decades ago the actor who’s now pushing 60 had his initial impact on film audiences as Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistol who offended even the other Pistols, not to mention Churchill’s memory. Between the punk and the PM, Oldman has been Dracula, Beethoven, Rosencrantz, Sirius Black, Pontius Pilate, Lee Harvey Oswald, Gotham City’s police commissioner Gordon, and (maybe his best) John le Carré’s arch-spy Smiley—a fairly unsurpassable gallery. Oldman spent a good part of his earlier career as a renegade of sorts in the business, drinking at the wrong time (which turned out to be all the time) before he sobered up and saying things that occasionally had the sound of rightward-leaning political inclinations. But tenacity heals wounds, and when he was nominated for an Oscar a few years back for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there was a nearly audible industrywide gasp of incredulity at the realization that he had never been shortlisted before: Was that possible? Unless politics get in the way, which would be manifestly unfair, expect the Motion Picture Academy to make up for lost ground come March.

When most besieged leaders think they have an inner Churchill, what they mean is Churchill’s ego, charisma, and place in history, none of which was modest. However, as Kristin Scott Thomas’s Clementine Churchill advises her desperate husband in Darkest Hour, a true leader understands and accepts that his doubts inform resolve rather than complicate it. The film’s true drama has to do not with Churchill and the English people finding victory where and when none appears in sight—we know how that story turns out—but with finding one another. The triumph over totalitarianism, which won’t come until years after the movie ends, lies in bonds forged only from democracy, and to find his outer Churchill, Churchill has to find his inner England, whether on the Underground or elsewhere, and trust the populace with bitter realities from which he’s been trying to protect them. His isn’t the empty bombast of a 71-year-old infant’s tweets to a bastion of rage but rather a wise man’s address to a community of grace. Churchill can inspire his people only once he’s earned the moral authority to do so. Humbled, he sees himself in terms of his country rather than seeing the country in terms of himself.