Darkest Hour and Alternative Facts

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that since Darkest Hour was released in late November last year, my review has had between 100 and 200 visits daily, even on the holidays. My discussion of the major historical inaccuracies of the film has also stimulated lively debate among those who have commented.

Consider, first, my critics. Lynn Thompson, a professor of theater at CUNY calls “the notion of drama presented here as false as can be” and claims that “accuracy for its own sake is old timey history.” Jack resorts to one word sentences: “This. Is. A. Film. If you want accuracy read non-fiction…” And Timothy Roberts supports Jack, recounting his enjoyment of HBO’s series “Band of Brothers,” though he knows it was not entirely accurate.

On the other hand, listen to my supporters. Brinton Young, who was in touch with the historian John Lukacs, agrees with me that “The Underground focus group scene was beyond preposterous” and adds that “Lukacs’s book takes pains to emphasize the cordiality of the debate between Churchill and Halifax.” Paul writes “making Chamberlain and Halifax actual complex characters with important skills that Churchill needed … and whom Churchill had to maneuver past and win over seems like a much more fascinating story than what we got.” Tom raised the point that “there is an excess of character assassination going on in docudramas … particularly if [the character] happens to be dead.” And Chandran Mylvaganam notes with regret that “fictionalized movie versions of history … begin to be accepted by the general public as accurate depictions of the events portrayed.”

The late film critic Roger Ebert, in a 1999 review of The Insider, wrote “my notion has always been that movies are not the first place you look for facts, anyway. You attend a movie for the psychological truth, for emotion, for the heart of the story and not its footnotes.” I accept and will use this idea of “the heart of the story” as a criterion for evaluating docudramas.

The heart of the historical story was that Churchill was unwaveringly resolved to resist Nazi aggression, from the moment the Nazis came to power in 1933. Churchill’s war cabinet included one powerful minister (Halifax) inclined to negotiate with the Nazis and another powerful minister (Chamberlain) who was uncertain. Churchill’s challenge in his first few days as prime minister was to bring this group around to accept his uncompromising position. As Brinton Young and Paul discuss, this story could have made a powerful movie. The movie could even have been made from Halifax’s or Chamberlain’s perspectives.

There is a small genre of movies about meetings – Thirteen Days, Twelve Angry Men, The Wannsee Conference, and Executive Suite all come to mind – and a movie depicting the heart of the historical story could have instantiated and extended that genre.

Darkest Hour entered into a world of alternative facts, to borrow Kellyanne Conway’s famous phrase. In this world, Churchill, when faced with Halifax’s opposition and Chamberlain’s indecision, lost his nerve. At the suggestion of the king, he consulted The People and the impromptu London Underground focus group showed him the way. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott was as skeptical as I of these alternative facts, writing “[The filmmakers] sham populism is most evident in a ridiculous scene in which Churchill rides the London Underground and meets The People, a motley mass of stiff upper lips and brimming eyes.”

I should make it clear that I am not averse to historical fiction or docudrama. Readers may remember 2017 Nobel Laureate for Literature Kazuo Ishiguro’s breakthrough novel, The Remains of the Day (and the superb Merchant-Ivory film adaptation). They both explore the mindset of the aristocratic English appeasers in the Thirties. In a key scene, Chamberlain and Halifax meet secretly with the German ambassador von Ribbentrop at the fictional Darlington Hall. This cameo by historical characters in a work of fiction is not problematic because it creates a context to probe in greater depth the minds of the appeaser Lord Darlington and his exceedingly deferential butler Mr. Stephen.

Similarly, Peter Morgan’s trilogy of docudramas about Tony Blair – The Deal, The Queen, and The Special Relationship – consist primarily of invented dialogue but explore important truths about the mixture of motives that politicians embody and the prerequisites for success in politics.

I encourage interested readers to consult my 2011 book Govering Fables, in which I discuss numerous representations of Winston Churchill, every one more stimulating than Darkest Hour, The Remains of The Day, the Tony Blair trilogy, and much more.

To commentators like Lynn Thompson, Jack, and Timothy Roberts, what I and other commentators (Brinton Young, Paul, Chandran) are saying is not that we invariably privilege documentary film or have never encountered a docudrama that we liked. Rather, the alternative universe of alternative facts that Darkest Hour created is simply not as compelling as a movie that made the historical facts the heart of its story could have been.

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