I try to take my film class to go see an Academy Award nominee in the theater. There's only one PG-13 movie still in theaters and they all saw it on their own. I guess I should be glad that they are seeing film in the cinema on their own. Regardless, I'm jazzed that there's a PG-13 movie that can still be nominated. I'm pretty sure Dunkirk is also on that list.
DIRECTOR: Joe Wright
What is it with movies with very specific storylines falling in the same year? There were the apocalypse movies. There were the Mars movies. Now it's the Dunkirk movies? I guess we should all be happy about this movie existing because I know that a lot of the hullaballoo behind Dunkirk is that it never mentioned Churchill. After watching Darkest Hour, I guess I get it. It was his baby, but I don't think the narrative of Dunkirk would have made sense with the back and forth of locations. Dunkirk is the soldier's story. Darkest Hour is the politician's story. They both should exist and I guess it is kind of a blessing that they came out in the same year. I keep having mental connections to Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, but these were two separate projects unrelated outside of content.
Someone on the Catholic Film Group on Facebook talked about how Gary Oldman is one of the greatest actors of our generation. I was skeptical about that statement, but that might be Darkest Hour's biggest contribution. Gary Oldman is amazing in this movie. I have been saying for a while that I don't want to see anything else with Winston Churchill. I get it. I like Churchill just fine, but I've seen too many interpretations of Churchill that are all phenomenal. It seems like a roll that's built for Oscar bait because he's such a personality and, assuming that you have a solid actor who doesn't over-rely on impersonation, you have a solid performance. In the past few years, I've seen Ian McNiece, John Lithgow, and Gary Oldman all crush the role and I didn't think I wanted to even watch the Oldman one. Honestly, shy of getting directly invited to go see this movie, I wouldn't have watched this movie independently if it wasn't an Oscar nomination. But it is totally worthy. Gary Oldman crushes. The biggest compliment is that he pulls off what the other two actors hadn't. When I watch The Crown, I'm always so impressed with John Lithgow. But in my mind, I'm saying "John Lithgow is doing a great job." Instead, I watched Darkest Hour, completely engrossed in the character. I often forgot that I was watching Gary Oldman and I suppose that is the point. Part of that comes from the fact that he had an extremely effective makeup job. At the beginning, I found myself squinting to see Oldman in the role. It's in the eyes. I guess he's used to physically becoming other characters. I flashback to Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (I'm never sure what to italicize in that title). I think it has to be tempting to lean too heavily on the makeup, but I don't ever really see Oldman doing that. He portrays Churchill as a hero, but a brute at the same time. I'm sure that many people might argue against that, but Wright and Oldman portray Churchill as a lovable grump. This is where people might differ on performance styles, but I like the tale of the lovable grump. This is, after all, a political drama. Having the protagonist as completely unlikable would be a weird choice. When a movie is as dry as people sitting in a room discussing secret agendas, there has to be a somewhat likable portrayal to grab the audience. Oldman pulls that off in spade.
I like bold font choices (pun intended). Wright instantly grabs my attention with the font design and the color scheme. This is a gorgeous, if not a visually dark, movie. I think that WWII London has a look at this point. Wright doesn't really do anything to fight against that look. I'm not talking about much of the mise en scene, but I'm talking about the way a movie is shot. I think this might actually be the best call. Wright isn't lazy, by any means. There are some stylistic choices that really work for the film. The intercutting of bombing runs are extremely effective to return focus to the war, especially about when the movie becomes about winning popularity. Spielberg did the same thing with Lincoln. I don't want to constantly be comparing this to other movies, but Wright seems to have learned a lot from other movies and is kind of showing it in Darkest Hour, perhaps unintentionally. The real problem with this movie is that there isn't that much that is wholly original. Joe Wright is known for his period dramas. They are great. He did Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina. When I saw Atonement, I thought it was genius. It took the period drama aesthetic and superimposed it over a much heavier movie. But looking at Wright's style of filmmaking, I'm a little bummed that he hasn't pushed himself further. Darkest Hour isn't going to win. (Watch, now it is going to win and I'm going to feel dumb.) The reason that Darkest Hour isn't going to win is that it never really decides to push the envelope. It is a very safe movie with moments of absolute genius. The look of the movie works and I know that I was just asking that the movie look like it does, but I'm also tempted to see this movie explore a little bit more. I'm a little worried that in three years, I'm going to completely forget about this movie. I will know that I've seen it, but I probably won't be able to say anything beyond, "Gary Oldman was really good in that." Gary Oldman didn't allow the makeup to take over the part, but it seems like Joe Wright let the era take over his movie. The best things, from Wright's perspective, are the font choices and the intercutting of bombing runs.
I want to figure out what to think about this movie. I think there is a problem that comes with biopics. Biopics are interesting, but I rarely feel a deep love for the story. Perhaps they are the ultimate fan service. For Churchill nuts, this movie is either great devotion or problematic blasphemy. But for the rest of us who just want to watch a good movie, regardless of subject matter, the movie only has a certain degree of depth. We know how history views Churchill, (although I had no idea that people now hate Neville Chamberlain) so that leaves the end fairly unambiguous. This is a major moment in human history, which kind of kills the suspense. The problem is that this movie really relies on a degree of suspense to carry the story. So the biggest argument that Wright can present is how Churchill got to the level of fame that he did. I love biopics. I do. It's just that they never really stick to the ribs. The only one I really like is An Adventure in Space and Time, and that's a cop out because I am a huge Doctor Who fan. That's the problem. I've nailed it. I liked the movie just fine, but biopics have always kind of played it safe, with the exception of Marie Antoinette. Now that's a biopic that I like. It seems like it is a shaky place to stay saying that filmmakers should take risks with historical narratives. But history in these movies is already extremely tainted. Establish early on that events presented are somewhat skewed and have fun with it. I guess I shouldn't ask a movie entitled Darkest Hour to have more fun, but I just wanted risks and biopics rarely offer that.
The movie is good. I'll go as far as to say it is great. But it is also just another movie with the exception of Gary Oldman as Churchill, which is the only association most people have with the movie right now as is.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.