If You Want a Movie About Churchill, I’ve Got Good News for You


I just got out of a screening of Atomic Blonde, a movie set in the midst of Berlin in 1989 as the Wall is about to come tumbling down. It's an odd little flick—a hybrid of an action film and an intricately plotted spy-thriller, a bit like James Bond but with more cinematic flair and a far subtler plot or a dumbed down Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that takes place in the John Wick universe.

What it isn't is an Olympian-level view of American-Soviet relations as the primary symbol of the Cold War was dismantled brick by brick. I'm sure there's an interesting movie to be made about the heated phone calls taking place on opposite sides of the world, one that focuses on the domestic Soviet intrigue as Gorbachev watched the Evil Empire crumble into dust—a Thirteen Days by way of The Lives of Others, perhaps. But this isn't that film. And it wouldn't make much sense—nor would it be particularly useful to potential audiences, nor would it be particularly useful as a way of measuring the work of art in question—to write a piece of criticism arguing that an entirely different type of movie would have been, well, entirely different. Better, perhaps; more revealing of a time and a place, maybe. More to your specific interests? Sure, why not.

But, mostly, just different.

Which brings me to Dunkirk.

When the film opened, the Wall Street Journal published an odd piece by Dorothy Rabinowitz about director Christopher Nolan's treatment of Winston Churchill. She was annoyed the great British statesman was entirely absent from the proceedings because, well, he wasn't actually at Dunkirk, and Nolan's film is focused entirely on the men on the beach, on the sea, and in the air. This is all horribly inappropriate, according to Ms. Rabinowitz, who is, frankly, appalled that The Great Man was left out of the picture and Nolan doesn't utilize precious time informing us that, Actually, Nazis Are Bad:

The certainty of the Nazis’ threat is what preoccupied Churchill. His testament to the sterling attitude of his ministers, quoted above, kindly omits mention of the protracted arguments from those in his war cabinet who pressed for some respectable accommodation with Hitler, for some effort at least to open talks.

There was, for Churchill, no acceptable accommodation with Hitler. He knew the disastrous impact on British morale of any word of talks or arrangements with the Nazis. They would instead hear from their new prime minister only the iron determination to defeat the enemy, the confidence that it would be done—which had not a little to do with the strengthened spirit of the British public. They had been asked to fight for victory at all costs, and most knew why they must—among them those pilots of small boats braving German fire to rescue the army.

My friend and sometimes-editor John Podhoretz makes a similar argument (albeit, a much better constructed one, one that actually pays some attention to, you know, the movie in question) in this week's issue of the Weekly Standard. I take issue with his complaint that we don't get cute and quirky backstories about each of the men we follow—not only was this intentional, it's a superior artistic choice. It's the whole point of the film, in a way. (For a bit more in this vein, see my review.) But at least it's a criticism of the movie itself, one that is focused on its cinematic strengths and weaknesses.

Still, his critique, much like Ms. Rabinowitz's, more or less boils down to a sort of category error, a complaint that this is not the movie he wanted to see or the movie about this subject he was interested in seeing. Here's John:

Dunkirk was a singular and strange event. It was at once a horrendous disaster and a breathtaking triumph, a wonder and a tragedy. And the only way to show this to audiences would be to tell it from a more Olympian perspective. …

What we cannot fathom today about World War II is that it was a conflict Germany truly could have won. That is why Dunkirk was such a horror. The destruction Germany might have visited upon the British would have knocked them out of the war entirely. In his Periclean speech after the evacuation was completed, Churchill told his nation that it had suffered "a colossal military disaster," and it had—but in experiencing 40,000 casualties instead of 10 times that many, a nation and a civilization had been spared the hangman’s noose. It was a national humiliation to have to abandon the continent to Nazi rule, but the process of the British Expeditionary Force’s escape demonstrated national reserves of pluck (the "Dunkirk spirit") that gave heart and strength to the five-year effort ahead. Had the worst happened, the words Churchill spoke that will live as long as our English tongue is spoken—"we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender"—could never have been uttered.

All of this is well and good and true: Dunkirk was nearly a civilizational disaster and maybe a God's-eye view would have done a better job explaining the various consequences of defeat. Well, I've got good news for John and Ms. Rabinowitz: They can actually see a movie about that! That exact movie. Soon! Starring well known actors (including Gary Oldman as Churchill) from a brand name director (Joe Wright). It's called Darkest Hour. It opens in November. Here's the trailer!

Now. Maybe Darkest Hour will be a better movie about Dunkirk than Dunkirk was. Or maybe it'll be a typically old fashioned biopic that has little of the cinematic verve and vigor that Nolan's movie had. I don't know yet; I haven't seen Wright's film. But it wouldn't make much sense to complain about Darkest Hour‘s focus on a historical figure at the expense of the ground-eye view of the disaster, or to say, I dunno, "Man, it sure is terrible that Joe Wright didn't use IMAX cameras to make his film, what an awful movie, he should've made a different sort of picture altogether."

A different movie would, in fact, be different. And, oddly/pleasingly enough, we happen to be able to choose which of the different movies about Dunkirk we prefer this year.