Darkest Hour


When you’re Winston Churchill, you can ride on the tube smoking your tube of tobacco.

(2017) True Life Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlings, David Strathairn (voice), David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Perhaps more than any figure of his time Winston Churchill remains in the eyes of Britain as an enduring hero, a steadfast bulldog who led England when she alone faced down the might of Hitler’s war machine in the year before the United States joined the fight.

In 1940, the war is going disastrously for Great Britain. Neville Chamberlain (Pickup), the Prime Minister who infamously declared “Peace in Our Time” after negotiations with Adolph Hitler essentially handed Poland to the Nazis, is about to be forced out of his position. Who will replace him? Lord Halifax (Dillane) suggests Winston Churchill (Oldman), a former First Lord of the Admiralty who’s Gallipoli Campaign during the First World War had been so mishandled that he left the position in disgrace.

However, he was politically astute and was one of the few candidates that the opposition would accept. Halifax suspected the notoriously blunt Churchill would fumble this position as well at which time Dillane and his faction that urged surrender to the Nazis could come in and negotiate a peace tht Britain could live with. As mind-blowing as that sounds, it actually happened.

Churchill has other ideas. Although aging and infirm as the result of lifelong smoking and drinking, he was still a firebrand who was one of the great orators of the 20th century although that was a part of his skill set that Chamberlain and Halifax didn’t reckon on. Churchill was prescient enough to realize that the Americans would eventually enter the war although that didn’t look likely at the time as conversations with President Roosevelt (Strathairn) brought Churchill to the brink of despair. With his army trapped at Dunkirk, his navy neutralized by the U-Boats of the Nazis and his RAF completely outclassed by the Luftwaffe, Churchill knew he was days away from having most of his fighting force annihilated, leaving the road open for Hitler to invade.

He was also sensible enough to know that there could be no negotiations for peace. “When will you learn,” he roars at Halifax and his allies, “That you can’t negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” His relationship with King George VI (Mendelsohn), who detested him, was dysfunctional and only the steadfast support of his wife Clemmie (Thomas) – who also isn’t afraid to scold him from time to time – and his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (James) was all he had to see him through. Nonetheless, his true strength came from someone unexpected – the British people themselves. This would lead to one of the defining moments in the War – and in British history as a whole.

This is very much Churchill’s story and as such it’s very much Oldman’s show and to his credit he responds with maybe the defining performance of an already lustrous career. He has been the odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar since the first reviews came out in September following the movie’s debut at Toronto, and although there have been some great performances since the same sentiment prevails on the eve of the Oscar telecast this weekend. Whereas most of the previous performances of Churchill have either run perilously close to parody or focused on an aspect of the man, this is really the first onscreen performance that has captured Churchill as a complete, complex man. Blustery almost to the point of bullying (his first encounter with Layton reduces her to tears) but also possessed of an almost romantic soul, Oldman’s Churchill possesses an enormous ego but also a unique appreciation for the people of Britain that no other Prime Minister has possessed before or since. If anyone other than Oldman’s name is called on Sunday I should be very surprised.

Thomas does a game job being the yin to Churchill’s yang but she’s a lone tree against a hurricane. Nobody can stand against a performance like this and Thomas wisely doesn’t try. James also provides moments of genuine calm and compassion.

Maybe the most moving scene is one that didn’t actually happen in real life – Churchill taking a Tube from Downing Street to speak at Parliament rather than riding in his limousine. He takes the time to talk to the working people riding along with him and to his surprise they not only support him but urge him to fight for their survival, giving him all the motivation he needs. However, it should be said that while there’s no record of Churchill ever riding the subway, he was known to leave Downing Street to talk to the British people around London to find out what they were thinking and feeling. It is during this scene however that we realize that even though the movie is about Winston Churchill, it is also about the British people maybe even more so.

The movie is a bit long and takes a long time to get to the climactic speech that is the emotional payoff for the film but Oldman’s performance is just so engrossing that one doesn’t mind so much that we get to watch more of it. I will say that there are some CGI bombers and war scenes that aren’t very convincing; it might have been better to use newsreel footage rather than construct a nice but ineffective shot of a British soldier looking up to the sky through a hole in the roof of a house in Dunkirk and the camera rising to follow his gaze to Nazi bombers but because of the mediocre CGI the scene loses all of its power.

The movie is a strong one but one wonders how it would have been without Oldman in the cast; not quite so compelling I believe. Still, performances like this should be savored and encouraged. Oldman has given us a performance that comes in a very long while; you would be remiss if you are a film buff and miss this. Chances are you’ve already seen it but for those who haven’t, what on Earth are you waiting for?

REASONS TO GO: Oldman is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor for good reason. This is a movie that makes as effective a use of pauses as any I’ve ever seen. The complex relationship between King and Prime Minister is highlighted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is way too long. The CGI is poor and actually unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Hurt was originally cast to portray Neville Chamberlain but had become ill in the final stages of the cancer that claimed his life – which ironically Chamberlain was also stricken with during the period portrayed here. Hurt never made any readings or filmed any scenes but the movie is still dedicated to him.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Churchill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oh Lucy!

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Zero Dark Thirty


The halo around her head presages Jessica Chastain making box office history.

The halo around her head presages Jessica Chastain making box office history.

(2012) True Life Drama (Columbia) Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, Jonathan Olley, Jeremy Strong, Reda Kateb, John Barrowman, Chris Pratt, Frank Grillo, Scott Adkins, J.J. Kandel, Fares Fares, Mark Duplass, Tushaar Mehra, Stephen Dillane, Lauren Shaw. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Zero Dark Thirty may well be the most critically acclaimed film to come out last year and also the most controversial. The left claims that it glorifies and justifies torture, while the right claims that the filmmakers used classified material to make their film, which was also intended to help boost Obama’s electoral chances. Sony promptly defused this by scheduling it after the election.

Two years after 9-11, the CIA is no closer to finding and capturing Osama bin Laden than they were the day the Towers fell. New agent Maya (Chastain) is sent to Pakistan to work with Daniel (Clarke), one of the Agency’s top interrogators (read: torturer). In their hands is Ammar (Kateb), who helped supply money to the 9-11operatives who’d crashed the planes. Daniel water boards his prisoner and subjects him to pain and humiliation in every way imaginable.

After awhile, Maya suggests fooling him into thinking he’d already given up information that had led to Al Quaeda plans being thwarted. He gives them a name – Abu Achmed (Mehra), who is seemingly an important courier who may well have ties directly to Bin Laden. Maya seizes on this as a potential clue to his whereabouts; her station chief Joseph Bradley (Chandler) isn’t sure at all. Daniel is on the fence; he is weary of torture and wants to return home and cleanse his soul again.

Maya relentlessly chases her lead over the course of years, even after they get intelligence that Abu Achmed has been dead for years. She bonds with fellow female intelligence agent Jessica (Ehle) who looks to have a lead on a double agent who has ties to the inner circle. She goes to Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to pursue that lead…which ends in tragedy.

An attempt on Maya’s life convinces her that she’s getting close but it is no longer safe for her to stay in Pakistan so she returns to Washington to become a gadfly in the Agency as her persistence begins to pay off when information she receives leads her to find that Abu Achmed is very much alive – and living in a fortress-like complex in which someone is taking great pains to keep anyone from knowing what’s going on inside. Could this be where Bin Laden has been hiding all this time?

Well, you know what the answer to that question is unless you’ve been living under a rock. The last 25 minutes of the movie is really the payoff everyone is going to the theater to see – the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, ending up with the death of the notorious terrorist leader and the end of a decade-long nightmare. This is edge of the seat stuff, even if it is mostly seen in night vision and is often confusing and terrifying – as it must have been for the SEALs on the mission – and it at times seems like not very much is going according to plan.

I do have to say before we go into the film itself that I think that most of the complaints about the film are political posturing. This is far from an endorsement of torture for one thing – if anything, it’s an indictment against it. None of the information that they get through torture is usable – none of it. The only useful information they get is through fooling the detainee into thinking that he’d already given the information and even then it’s just a name – and not even the right one.

As for being a left-wing Obama lovefest, it’s far from that either. While I can’t speak to the filmmakers being given access to classified documents (a claim denied both by the filmmakers and the CIA, as well as with analysts familiar with the Bin Laden manhunt), I can say that they take great pains to make this as apolitical as possible. Clearly, the film is about those who undertook the greatest manhunt in history, those people in the clandestine services. No, it isn’t about suave secret agents in fast cars with nifty gadgets, although there are a few of the latter. Mostly it’s about people chasing down leads in places I wouldn’t want to spend a minute in, much less months at a time. Obama barely rates a mention or two here.

The one who rates more than a mention is Jessica Chastain. She comes into her own here and even though she’s already in a very brief time turned in some amazing performances, this tops it and puts her squarely at the top of the favorites for the Best Actress Oscar (she’s already won a Golden Globe as of this writing). She’s also made box office history, becoming the first woman ever to star in the number one and number two movies in the box office race in the same week at the same time. She joins a very elite company of men who have accomplished the same difficult feat.

Her Maya is driven, relentless as a terrier and having all the social graces of a charging bull. She is fearless, standing up to her often timid bosses who are far more afraid of being wrong than they are of not finding Bin Laden. She’s a cruise missile on a factory floor and heaven help anyone who gets in the way of her goal. Chastain is wise enough to make her vulnerabilities show up from time to time – being alone against the world can wear a person down. It’s also a very lonely place to be. Incidentally, it is reported that Maya is based on a real CIA operative, although there are those who insist that the real Maya is a man.

The movie runs about two and a half hours and that might be a little long for some, although I didn’t particularly notice the length. It does have a tendency to telegraph some of the action; when you see a date you know something tragic is about to happen.

Bigelow and her production designer Jeremy Hindle do a realistic job of setting up the look and feel of the film. Hindle built a re-creation of Bin Laden’s compound in the Jordanian desert in only a couple of months. Now, I’m not the sort who can look at the film and say “oh yes, that’s exactly the way the compound looked” but others who can do it have done so.

This is a brilliant movie that carries a little baggage with it that might affect the way you view it. I urge you not to bring small children to the movie as some idiot of a parent did to our screening; this is a movie with some pretty graphic images that the squeamish are going to have a real hard time with. For the rest of us, this is a movie that has been justifiably lauded; it’s not a perfect movie but it is certainly one that is worth your time and effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A brilliant performance by Chastain, justifiably Oscar-nominated. Realistic almost to a fault.

REASONS TO STAY: The torture scenes are very hard to take. Telegraphs some of its moves in advance.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some graphic depictions of torture that are by no means meant for children, nor are the pictures of those killed in the various bombings and raids. DO NOT BRING YOUR PRE-TEENS TO THIS MOVIE!!!!!!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was already in pre-production and was to be about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden when the news broke that Bin Laden was dead. Immediately the screenplay was re-written to turn the movie into the story of the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100; this movie is as well-reviewed as it’s possible to get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

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