Not Our Finest Hour

Darkest Hour presents Churchill as a Trump-like populist—and in the process, elides the lessons contemporary audiences might learn from his wartime leadership.

Donald Trump looks at a bust of Winston Churchill (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, is, in the worst sense of the term, an insightful movie critic. The day after Christmas he left a viewing of Darkest Hour having concluded that yes, Donald Trump is a leader of the Churchillian stamp. He has a limited point. In a twisted way, the profoundly misleading portrayal of Churchill in Darkest Hour is in sync with Huckabee’s spectacularly sycophantic tweet.

The actors in the film do their job well, and Kazuhiro Tsuji’s prosthetic that gives Gary Oldman Churchillian jowls is an amazing thing to behold. Unfortunately, the movie goes downhill from there.

All movies on historical subjects take liberties with the facts, sometimes harmlessly so and other times in more subtly misleading ways. For example, Clementine Churchill’s admonishment of Churchill not to be so grumpy actually came in the form of a letter, not in a tête-à-tête as in the film, and in late June after the fall of France and not in the midst of the crisis of May 1940. It reflected her knowledge of, and quiet conversations with, the exceptionally able men around Churchill, and her admonition was not of the “buck up, old boy” variety, but rather an upper-crust reminder to treat one’s subordinates decently. These and other subtle historical frauds add up, but they are not the main issue.

No, the biggest problem with the movie is its portrayal of Churchill’s character. The film shows him as a drunk old man (he took his whisky diluted with large amounts of water, not neat as the movie has him doing from morn to night), uncertain of himself, bewildered, universally despised by his own party—his robust support from Labor and a vocal Conservative minority being omitted from all but the beginning of the film. He gets through it all and rouses himself to give his Churchillian roars only after taking an utterly mythical ride in the London underground, soliciting the opinions of average Brits who also deliver “buck up, old boy” messages of defiance. He (again, fictitiously) cites these passengers by name in a speech to the entire Cabinet that whipped the anxious politicians into line. The actual speech, which Labor leader Hugh Dalton captured in his diary, did indeed end as Gary Oldman delivers it: “We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere and if at last the long story is to end, it were better it should end not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground when each of us lies choking on his own blood.” He most assuredly did not tell the politicians that a bricklayer and typist had instructed him to say something like that.

Yet one can see what Huckabee was driving at. In the movie the boss is erratic; accused, not entirely unjustly, of systemically bad judgment; at odds with the timid elders of his own party; impulsive; and loud-mouthed. He is, however, the authentic voice of the people and a forceful bully in the right cause. If one squints a bit, one can see the populist conception of leadership here. A Great Man channels the sound instincts of Everyman, and ticks off the great and the good as he defies their timidity and conventional good sense.

Did Churchill have erring judgment, crackpot ideas, and moments of intemperate dislikes and caustic remarks? Of course. He was a statesman, not a god, and in waging the largest and most difficult war in his nation’s history it would be astounding if he did not make some awful calls and exhibit in unappealing ways the strain that wore all of his contemporaries—Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin—to the breaking point. What was most striking, however, in his World War II record was the way in which he had grown since Gallipoli. He self-consciously avoided the mistake of simply overruling his generals, for example, although he gave them a hard time. When they opposed his schemes for landings in Norway later in the war he yielded to their objections, albeit grudgingly. He had the self-knowledge to direct his staff that only written orders from him, not his verbal directives, should be taken seriously. Most importantly, he was right on all the big things.

What the movie does not capture is most of what was significant about Churchill’s wartime leadership, such as his uniformly appreciated expertise about the detail and mechanics of war. That is why, even during his years in the political wilderness, his political opponents put him on the committee exploring British air defenses. There is nothing that would make you realize that he was one of the great historians of the mid-20th century, his biography of the Duke of Marlborough still standing as a remarkable study of statecraft. One could similarly be excused for not knowing that after the Gallipoli debacle he successfully served during World War I as minister for munitions and secretary of state for war, and later as minister of air, secretary of state for the colonies, and as chancellor of the exchequer—a unique range of high-level experience, in addition to not one but two tours as civilian head of the Royal Navy. One would never think that this was a man who, upon taking the prime minister’s post, harnessed the machinery of the Cabinet into a smoothly running engine of war, guiding it not by drunken shouts, but in writing, with a flowing current of pointed memoranda and queries.

Above all, the truth about Churchill in 1940 is that he entered his post apprehensive of the worst that might come, but supremely self-confident and resolved to fight it through to the end, “be it bitter or be it glorious” as he put it. He inspired the British people, not the other way around. And he did it with growls of defiance and not the histrionic howls of the movie.

The larger point here is that the movie allows those who view it, like Huckabee, to succumb to a completely false notion of statesmanship as something scarcely one step removed from being an insufferable blowhard. Reading both wide and deep, expertise, poise, the Roman virtues of gravitas and auctoritas, experience, unremitting effort, organizational skill—all these are the real Churchillian virtues in addition to the eloquence that is so utterly removed from the squeals and barks of the current American president.

It is not too soon to begin thinking about the recovery from Trump, because the damage he has done will be lasting. He is debasing our national discourse, his office, and our understanding of what it means to be a wise and effective political leader. The road back lies first with insisting on unpleasant realities—in this case, who Trump really is and what he is doing—and secondly with turning to history to understand what right looks like. That is neither the Huckabee nor the Hollywood way, but it is the Churchillian path.