Monday, December 25, 2017

'Darkest Hour" and 'The Post'

These are two excellent pictures. Darkest Hour shows Churchill at his best: 1940-45 was his time, a rather brief but totally overwhelming part of a long life. Before he had been an itinerant journalist, writer, politician, strategist of the disastrous Gallipoli invasion, and generally unappreciated Member of Parliament; in May 1945, when Britain finally held an election following V-E Day, he and the Tories were voted out as the populace preferred Labour in peacetime.

But during those first days in office, and for the next years, Churchill was the man they needed and he delivered. This movie is especially good at pointing out the crew of losers and appeasers who had dominated and still dominated the Conservative Party despite their yielding to his designation by King George VI. Neville Chamberlain had been ousted but was by no means finished--that came with his death within six months--and Viscount Halifax was a dangerous rival who wanted peace at any price and is seen in the film as going to any length to undermine Churchill and give in to Germany.

Gary Oldman is marvelous as Churchill as is Kristin Scott Thomas, as his wife, Clementine, the one person who could speak bluntly and effectively to him. Ronald Pickup, whom I saw on stage in a visiting Royal Shakespeare Company troupe in Brooklyn ages ago as both Richard II and Bolingbroke--he exchanged roles in alternate performances--was fine as Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane is appropriately slimy as Halifax.

We've had two fine performances as Churchill, with John Lithgow's in the first year of The Crown on Netflix. Darkest Hour, though, is set at the high point of Churchill's career--the low point for Britain--and the pressures he was under unyielding. He was really beginning to fade when he returned as prime minister in 1951 when Lithgow's role starts. And it was far more satisfying on screen than Dunkirk, which seemed to take the view that pictures can tell the whole story, as there was precious little dialogue.

The Post is well-done as well. Hanks and Streep shine as Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham. Their personalities alone justify the moviemakers deciding to focus on The Washington Post rather than The New York Times, which ran the first story on the Pentagon Papers, and when enjoined, saw the Post pick up and run with the story which Daniel Ellsberg had then provided, after the Post had tracked him down.

Today's Times had a column by Jim Ruttenberg that tried to make the case that the movie should have been about the Times. It's not just that the Post provided a better story: Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham were both more sympathetic and more interesting than Abe Rosenthal. Graham knew she was unprepared in many ways to make the biggest decision of her career and Bradlee was a natural showman. Even people who respected Rosenthal's ability regarded him as an obnoxious individual.

The movie, however, is excellent in its depiction of the whole scene and story, including its presentation of the Supreme Court scene, a pet peeve of mine, which was almost completely accurate. For some reason, Hollywood is unable to re-create the Supreme Courtroom accurately, although far more challenging sets have been built. Both movies tell important stories that cry out to be seen and remembered.

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