The Two Reviews: Darkest Hour and The Post

Darkest Hour
2017. Directed by Joe Wright, featuring Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Darkest Hour is a war-drama that follows the first few weeks of Winston Churchill’s Prime Ministership – a period of intense military and political turmoil for Britain. The German army is marching through Europe, a seemingly unstoppable military force, and the British army and the larger part of the loyal French forces are encircled at Dunkirk and Calais, awaiting annihilation. In this moment of crisis, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is replaced by Churchill (Gary Oldman) in a cross-party government of unity – but in which significant differences exist. The government must decide whether to negotiate a humiliating agreement with Hitler or face likely defeat by fighting on.

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The film is more or less historically accurate in its essentials, but it has several creative inventions – presumably to help the plot along. In fact, the creative additions are the weakest parts of the film. One particularly annoying (and entirely fictional) scene is when Churchill – while his cabinet is waiting for him – takes the Underground train and talks to ‘ordinary folk’, who revere and support him. And though they don’t quite say “We’re all behind you Guv”, that is the tone of it. But this is a Joe Wright film (the person responsible for Atonement and Pride and Prejudice), so one has to expect caricatures of Englishness, particularly the working classes in the rare times they are on screen. To be fair to Wright, he does present Churchill as a complex figure, with insecurities and a fiery temper, and his political opponent Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) is neither weak nor unreasonable. Though the Underground scene just doesn’t work, much of the rest of the film does. And it is helped along by an excellent cast. Gary Oldman’s Churchill is convincing, Stephen Dillane’s Halifax is excellent and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI is superb. I liked the lighting, and special effects, where they were used. And of course, Churchill was a great orator, so there is a smattering of some of his speeches in the film, which lifts it from what would otherwise have been a touch dull.

DARKEST HOUR

Apart from some invented scenes (the Underground scene, a phone call between Churchill and Roosevelt), which add nothing at all to the drama (no one has to make this moment in history more dramatic than it already was!), it is another film in a whole series of big-budget films that encapsulate the greatness of Britain and the nobility of British leaders and members of the Royal family. This theme is getting boring, and it is also hard not to note a sub-text going on that leans towards a conservative nostalgia for a past Britain, which was stoic, civil, white and getting on with the job at hand. That aside, it is a reasonably well constructed film; certainly better than other Joe Wright films, and worth watching for some great acting performances.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3/5

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The Post
2017. Directed by Steven Spielberg, featuring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The Post is a political drama about political accountability at the highest level of government and the fight for an ‘independent’ press during the Nixon Presidency, mid-1971. The focus is on the newspaper The Washington Post which must decide whether it will follow the New York Times, in publishing excerpts from a secret government archive – the Pentagon Papers – which shows the duplicity of consecutive US presidents in lying to the American people, to Congress and to the media about their intense involvement in engineering the Vietnam War and their continuing involvement in it despite clear information that it was unwinnable. The decision to publish may result in criminal prosecution, including lengthy jail sentences, and the newspaper being shut down.

The Post

This film doesn’t quite get into the nitty-gritty of the murky line between journalistic independence and political partisanship, as newspaper owners and senior editors rub shoulders with power brokers in industry and government, but there is enough there to provide a backdrop to the dilemma that the editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and the Washington Post’s owner Katharine Graham (Streep) are now facing. There have been plenty of people who have pointed out that this film is a timely message in the current climate of presidential attacks on the Press (including, notably, the same two papers – The New York Times and Washington Post). When Spielberg is not making a fantasy film, he is making a film with a political or social message. I don’t always like the way he does this, but I appreciate he is a film maker with a social conscience.

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I think Spielberg gets a feel for the early 70s, and particularly the male-dominated world of the press, though there are a few melodramatic touches. For example, when Graham (Streep) descends the steps outside the Supreme Court and passes by a long line of assembled women who are all looking at her in respectful silence and awe (oh Spielberg!). Streep and Hanks both put in great performances, as do the rest of the cast. Streep is especially good at showing the anxious and conflicting thinking running through her mind as she is trying to come to terms with the unfolding drama. It’s a credit to her and Spielberg that Graham isn’t portrayed as a confident, defiant, steely woman standing up in a male-dominated world, but that she is for much of the time uncertain as to what she should do. This film doesn’t quite have the on-the-edge drama I was hoping for, but it is a decent film, well-acted and very pertinent in the current political climate.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3.5/5

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