4106_D023_00001_R_CROPLily James stars as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit:  Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour” and the Power of Words

I went to see Darkest Hour recently. As a captivating piece of cinema, it is superb. Gary Oldman turns in a masterful performance as Winston Churchill, with a fine cast supporting him like spokes on a bicycle wheel. I couldn’t believe that two hours had passed when the movie ended: I could have easily done another 45 minutes.

The movie is a meditation on words. The international crisis of 1940, the Parliamentary intrigues, even the personage of Churchill himself are harnessed in order to present words as inherently and eminently powerful. The tension in the movie is – on one level – between the appeasers and the pro-war group in the British government. But on a larger level, it is between those who believe in the power of words and those who do not. The believers flock to Churchill. They are so convinced of their efficacy in his mouth that Churchill’s biggest admirers criticize him only once in the movie: when he abuses his skill of communication by deceiving the British citizens about the success of the French resistance. The skeptics, instead, make remarks throughout the movie to the effect that Winston likes to hear himself speak. Halifax accuses him of trading on nothing but words. Even the final line of the movie is a somewhat ambiguous comment from Churchill’s rivals: he has weaponized the English language. And to what end?

Perhaps the reason Churchill understood Hitler so well and so early is that Churchill understood the power of oratory. Another theme of Darkest Hour, I think, is the extreme contingency with which world-historical decisions are made. The biggest blunder of Churchill’s career – the Gallipoli affair – could easily, at least according to Churchill, have been a major success if a few pieces had fallen into place. This, on one level, is major support for the idea of the humility of history: that it is small decisions, and not (contra Hitler) giant waves or so-called “inevitabilities” which actually change the world. And it is not just decisions which could go either way, but words themselves. Hitler galvanized Germany with force of will and the ability to communicate a vision which many could grasp and internalize. As I said, Churchill’s ability to see this for what it was probably led to his early and vocal opposition to Hitler. He understood what was happening in Berlin and he spoke his mind unequivocally. The war, then, ended up as a battle between competing visions of history and between the effectiveness of communication.

Churchill convinced the United Kingdom that it was better to die in a free London than wave the white flag. His own force of will was powerful, to the point that he almost seemed to convince people of things they didn’t actually believe. In the hands of a monster like Hitler, such an ability literally put the world at the brink of destruction. But for Churchill, it became the soundtrack of the West’s finest hour. Among many things, that should remind us that oratory absolutely depends upon content and the intention of the speaker.

That may even help us understand the Incarnation better, when the Word became flesh in order to reveal God to humanity, and humanity to itself.