The Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour is a movie that should be seen, but not entirely believed. Gary Oldman's alternately fierce and vulnerable Churchill is a triumph of both acting and the cosmetician's art. Just hearing him deliver snippets of Churchill's speeches is worth the ticket price. (Am I the only one who tears up at the words "We shall fight on the beaches"? My wife: "Probably.")
But the central conceit of the film — that a deflated, defeated Churchill required bucking up by average Brits — is fiction. Very nearly the opposite was true. The policy of appeasement was broadly popular in Britain during the early to mid-1930s. In 1938, a majority supported Neville Chamberlain's deal at Munich (which ceded much of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in return for … nothing).
It is more accurate to say that Churchill summoned British courage and defiance by his intense idealization of British character. He saw heroic traits in his or her countrymen that even they, for a time, could not see.
This is not to say that May and June of 1940 weren't dark times, even for Churchill. As resistance in France collapsed and Italy seemed destined to enter the war on Germany's side, Churchill asked his chiefs of staff if it were possible to continue the war at all (they gave a conditional "yes"). The despair implied in that question still startles.
But on June 3, even as British troops were being evacuated at Dunkirk, Churchill's private secretary Jock Colville wrote in his diary: "Winston is tired of our always being on the defensive and is contemplating raids on the enemy. 'How wonderful it would be,' he writes to [Gen. Hastings] Ismay, 'if the Germans could be made to wonder where they were going to be struck next instead of forcing us to try to wall in the Island and roof it over.'" In the midst of catastrophe, Churchill was dreaming of Normandy (and North Africa and Italy). Not the thoughts of a defeated man.
Where Darkest Hour shines is in presenting the alarming, inspiring contingency of great events. In the spring of 1940, Europe was being shaken by massive, impersonal, world-historic forces — the apparent failure of liberal democracy and free markets, the rise of communism and fascism, the unleashing of anti-Semitism. Millions marched, line by line, to the "Horst Wessel" song or the "Internationale."
And yet, in saving the remnants of the British Army at Dunkirk, it fell to 665 private British boats (along with 222 British warships) to rescue their country from (likely) capitulation or invasion. All the powerful, impersonal forces funneled down and down to 665 volunteer captains in pleasure craft and fishing trawlers. The future of freedom was determined by the choices and courage of a few hundred free people.
And, of course, the choices and courage of one man.
A New York Times review of Darkest Hour sneered at the movie's "great man fetish." But is there really any doubt that history would be darker if Churchill had truly lost his nerve, or had died when hit by a car in New York in December of 1931 (he escaped with two cracked ribs and a severe scalp wound)? History can hinge on a single life.
From Churchill, we learn to resist pessimistic extrapolation. May 1940 was terrible, but not permanent. We learn the power of unreasonable optimism — the value of planning for revival in the midst of defeat. We see the possibility of leadership that can not only ride the tide but summon it.
Many of us view this example, not only with appreciation, but with longing. The problem of our time is not only arrogance without accomplishment or swagger without success. These are common enough in politics. Rather, it is the arrival of leadership that survives by feeding resentment, hatred, and disorienting flux. Leadership urging us — at angry rallies, in ethnic stereotyping, through religious bigotry — to forget who we really are as a people. Leadership that has ceased to believe in the miracle at our country's heart — the inclusive, unifying power of American ideals.
But the moment is not permanent. Many are looking for a place to invest their hope. And some leader, we trust, will rise who calls his or her countrymen to choose decency and civic friendship above the destructive pleasures of hatred and blame. Who can see and summon the best in American character, even if, for the moment, it is hidden.
In the meantime, we shall fight on the beaches.