Sunday, December 10, 2017
Gary Oldman is a tremendous Winston Churchill in high-octane drama
By Peter Bradshaw
13 September 2017
Just as Britain negotiates its inglorious retreat from Europe, and our political classes prepare to ratify the chaotic abandonment of a union intended to prevent another war, there seems to be a renewed appetite for movies about 1940. Christopher Nolan has just given us his operatic immersion in Dunkirk, and now Joe Wright — who himself staged bravura Dunkirk scenes in his 2007 film Atonement — directs this undeniably exciting and beguiling account of Winston Churchill’s darkest hour in 1940, as Hitler’s forces gather across the Channel, poised to invade. It is written by Anthony McCarten, who scripted the recent Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything.
This is not so much a period war movie as a high-octane political thriller: May 1940 as House Of Cards, with the wartime Prime Minister up against a cabal of politicians who want to do him down. It’s interesting for a film to remind us that appeasement as an issue did not vanish the moment that Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister; despite the famous David Low cartoon, not everyone was right behind him, rolling up their sleeves. Here, his immediate enemies do not seem to be Hitler and Mussolini as much as Chamberlain and Halifax, agitating for a deal with the Nazis and scheming to undermine Churchill’s cabinet and parliamentary position.
They are played respectively by Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane, the latter having a malign mandarin impassivity. Dillane makes him a pretty unholy fox. Ben Mendelsohn plays George VI, who is also an appeasement fan at first, though the film gallantly makes him a Churchill convert, conjuring a scene between the two of them in which his job is to stiffen Winston’s sinews. (This film incidentally doesn’t make the mistake in The King’s Speech of implying that Churchill sided with Bertie during the Abdication.)
Darkest Hour has obvious similarities to the recent film Churchill, with Brian Cox; like that drama it imagines a pretty young WAAF figure as his secretary, for him to be at first grumpy and then soppy with - Lily James plays this part here. Miranda Richardson played the exasperated wife Clemmie in the Brian Cox movie and here it’s Kristin Scott Thomas being exasperated and affectionate, helping the impossible old devil dress etc, in more or less the same way - although there’s more here for Scott Thomas to get her teeth into. But this movie packs a much bigger and more effective punch, and that’s down to a more ambitious scale, pacier narrative drive - and the lead performance.
Every time I sit down to another Churchill drama, I promise myself I won’t just roll over for another actor in the latex/Homburg/bowtie/cigar/padding combo and doing the jowl-quivering while speaking in thevoish and the weird cadencesh. And yet there’s no doubt about it, Gary Oldman is terrific as Churchill, conveying the babyishness of his oddly unlined face in repose, the slyness and manipulative good humour, and a weird deadness when he is overtaken with depression. There is a scene (a bit fancifully imagined) with Churchill slumped in a bleakly lit almost unfurnished room, where he looks like something by Lucian Freud. He spends a fair bit of time down in the bunker-ish Cabinet War Rooms yelling at people: these are the “Upfall” scenes, which might get YouTube-subtitled in German in all sorts of irreverent ways. And it is here that Winston reaches his nadir, before the miracle of the little boats has manifested itself. He allows Halifax to send word via the Italians that Britain would be theoretically interested in the Danegeld-price: what might induce Hitler to hold back from Britain and its colonies? Oldman shows Churchill going into a kind of stricken shock.
This is not to say that there isn’t a fair bit of hokum and romantic invention. This film imagines Churchill needing to take a journey on the tube because his official car is held up in traffic. So he meets a quaint cross-section of forelock-tugging British and empire subjects in the underground carriage, from whom he learns something very important — that he is absolutely right!
There is room for a more sceptical movie about Churchill: something revisiting his performance during the Tonypandy Riots or the Siege Of Sidney Street. Or just something that acknowledges that he hated Adolf Hitler for the same reason he hated Mahatma Gandhi: they were both enemies of the British Empire. But Gary Oldman carries off a tremendous performance here, and it’s impossible not to enjoy it. It’s as if his establishment panjandrum George Smiley was suddenly infused with the spirit of Sid Vicious.
An Injustice to Winston Churchill
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour butchers history to make the British prime minister a much less decisive figure than he actually was.
By Kyle Smith
November 20, 2017
Because an irresolute and small-minded age applies its own neuroses backward to history, because actors love to portray internal torment, and because we fancy ourselves so sophisticated that we know the official story of the past to be a ruse, movies about important historical figures have become less inspiring and “more human,” at times even iconoclastic. In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ presented a very modern Nazarene wracked with anguish about whether he could carry on with his duty, delivering a casual, vernacular Sermon on the Mount from a dusty slope scarcely more elevated than a pitcher’s mound. The Queen (2006) depicted a matter-of-fact Elizabeth II who fixed car engines. The Iron Lady (2011) approached Margaret Thatcher via the Alzheimer’s disease she suffered in her final years. Lincoln (2012) reconceived the most revered orator in American history as a quizzical figure speaking in a high-pitched, soft rasp.
Now it’s Churchill’s turn to be shrunken down to a more manageable size. In Darkest Hour, which is set across May and June of 1940, the English director Joe Wright and his star Gary Oldman conspire to create a somewhat comical, quavering, and very human prime minister. In dramatic terms it’s an engaging picture, and Oldman is terrifically appealing, but if you’re looking for indecision and angst, the person of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill is a curious place to declare you’ve found it.
Darkest Hour begins with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Churchill’s accession to the premiership on May 10, 1940, building up to the concluding “We shall fight on the beaches” speech he delivered in the House of Commons on June 4, after the miraculous Dunkirk rescue. (The flight of British forces from the Continent takes place almost entirely offscreen here but has been covered in another movie this year. It also inspired a memorable interlude, captured in one of the most elaborate continuous shots ever put to film, in Wright’s own 2007 movie Atonement).
Introduced to us as a kind of rumpled, absent-minded professor with an alarming predilection for drink and a habit of terrifying his secretary (Lily James), Oldman’s Churchill is alternately funny, disarming, wheedling, and unsettled by events in Europe and Washington, from which in a dismal phone call Franklin Roosevelt is heard informing him that the United States cannot by law come to Britain’s rescue. Churchill insists he must at least have the ships he bought: “We paid for them . . . with the money that we borrowed from you.” Yet Roosevelt’s hands are tied. “Just can’t swing it,” he says. Britain must stand alone.
Such moments capture the sense of a Britain gasping for air as Hitler’s fingers tightened their grip around its neck. But then, in its last half-hour, Darkest Hour veers far off the path of truth. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten has claimed, citing Cabinet minutes, that Churchill’s intentions changed virtually from “hour to hour,” and “this is not something that’s ever been celebrated — that he had doubts, that he was uncertain.” All of this is a gross exaggeration. Churchill told his War Cabinet on May 28 “that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” I understand the needs of Method actors, but Churchill was not George McFly.
Hectored by a combination of Chamberlain and his fellow appeaser, Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the prime minister is shown as nearly ready to give in and sue for peace through Mussolini. Buckling under pressure, he rediscovers his resolve only because of last-minute pep talks from his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). The clincher is that traffic halts the premier’s car and he is forced to take the Underground to Parliament.
Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten would have us believe that the ghostwriters of the immortal speech to follow were random Londoners Churchill met on that train, where they gave him both courage and some of the actual words he later used. But these events did not occur; the only time Churchill ever rode the Underground was during the general strike of 1926, according to his biographers William Manchester and Paul Reid. To suggest otherwise trivializes Churchill’s defining speech by reducing it to the level of stenography, while completely misstating the direction of wartime inspiration. Churchill was nothing like the people’s puppet. He felt he was born to lead them. As he would later write, “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. . . . I was sure I should not fail.”
It is a cliché of the motion-picture industry that, in order to sufficiently excite audience interest, the climactic moments must incorporate a reversal of direction. Since we all know how this chapter of World War II ends — to give Wright and McCarten credit, it’s a stirring, magnificent scene in which Churchill rouses the nation with the 34-minute address one MP called “the speech of 1,000 years” — Darkest Hour simply imposes its dramatic needs upon the days preceding it. For the sake of a good yarn, it mistakes a lion for a jellyfish.
Friday, December 08, 2017
The only reason recognizing Jerusalem as the Jewish State’s capital is controversial is that the world has been pretending it’s not for decades.
By Jonah Goldberg
December 8, 2017
The most exhausting thing about the Middle East — except for the bloodshed, poverty, tyranny, etc. — is that it refuses to conform to how it’s described in the West.
It’s like journalists, diplomats, and politicians want to announce a football game, but the players keep insisting on playing rugby. The field looks similar. The scoring isn’t all that different. It’s just a different game. But don’t tell the gang in the booth. They get furious when you point out that the facts don’t line up with the commentary.
Consider President Trump’s momentous (though for now mostly symbolic) announcement that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Before you can debate whether this was a good move, you must acknowledge one glaring fact that the chatterers want to ignore or downplay: It’s true. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, convenes there. Israelis call it their capital for the same reason they claim two plus two equals four. It’s just true.
What makes the decision controversial is that everyone had agreed to pretend it wasn’t the capital in order to protect “the peace process.”
That’s another term that doesn’t quite correspond with reality. There is no peace process. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president finishing the twelfth year of his four-year term, has refused to meet with the Israelis to discuss anything since early in the Obama administration.
Part of the blame for that, of course, belongs with Obama, who built an entire foreign policy around what he wanted to be true rather than what was actually going on. Obama sought to distance the U.S. from Israel on the assumption that Israel was the unreasonably stubborn party in the “peace process.” That’s why, on the way out the door, the Obama administration broke with precedent and opted not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring East Jerusalem “occupied territory.”
This implied that, as a matter of international law, the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem itself really belong to the Palestinians — which is an insane fantasy.
But denying reality is how this game has long been played. In his speech after Trump’s announcement, Abbas talked at great length about Jerusalem’s history as a Muslim and Christian city. He made no mention of the fact that it’s also a famously Jewish city, having been established as the capital of ancient Israel 1,000 years before Jesus was born.
Trump called his decision “a recognition of reality.” People invested in irreality insist the move will worsen “the Middle East conflict.”
Here, too, we have mislabeling. Whole books are dedicated to the Middle East conflict, as if the Israel–Palestinian issue were the only conflict in the region. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of dead Syrians or the millions displaced by the civil war there. Tell it to those dying in Yemen, site of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
It’s been this way for decades. The Palestinians and their Arab patrons insisted to gullible Westerners that the Israel–Palestinian conflict was the source of all the region’s problems. Was the Iran–Iraq War, which cost more than a million lives, a fight over Palestinian statehood? What about the Lebanese Civil War? Turkey’s campaign against the Kurds?
The only people who bought the idea that the Middle East conflict began and ended with Israel were those guys in the control booth describing the wrong game — i.e., Western experts and activists deeply invested in the “peace process.”
In a sense, that’s understandable. If you’ve dedicated your entire professional life to a moveable feast that covers your airfare and lodging in Paris or Geneva while you discuss grave matters, it’s probably hard not to cling to fictions.
But those fictions are losing their hold, ironically thanks in large part to the Obama administration. By working on fantasy rather than facts, Obama threw the balance of power in the region heavily in Iran’s favor, lifting sanctions and giving Iran hundreds of billions of dollars. He thought the Iranians would join the community of nations or some such twaddle. Instead, they pocketed the money and are now on a surer path to a nuclear bomb.
As a result of this new reality, the old fictions are a luxury that Iran’s regional adversaries can no longer afford. That’s why Saudi Arabia, a longtime Palestinian patron, has been moving steadily closer to Israel: because Israel is a more valuable friend in the new Middle East conflict than the Palestinians are — or Obama was.
— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. © 2017 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Thursday, December 07, 2017
By John Podhoretz
December 6, 2017
‘This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” President Trump said in announcing America’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Never have truer words been spoken, and they were delivered in the best speech Trump has ever given.
What Trump did was stunning. He could just have signed the waiver of the law passed in 1995 compelling the executive branch to move America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He did it six months ago, just like his three immediate predecessors did every six months since 1996. Or he could have not signed the waiver and simply said he was going to start the process of building the new embassy.
Instead, he called the international community’s seven-decade bluff and ended a delusion about the future that has prevented Palestinians from seeing the world and their own geopolitical situation clearly. It is a bold shift.
The idea that Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital has been a global pretense for decades, including here in the United States. It’s a pretense because Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital from the moment the new country secured a future by winning a bloody war for independence waged against it by Arab nations after they rejected the UN partition of the old British mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
Under the plan, Jerusalem was to be an international city governed by the United Nations. But the Arab effort to push the Jews into the sea — an effort no other nation on earth intervened in to prevent — left a divided Jerusalem in the hands of the Jews in the West and Jordan in the East.
There would be no “international” Jerusalem because the Arabs made sure there could not be one.
So, in 1949, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion moved the government from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “The people which faithfully honored for 2,500 years the oath sworn by the Rivers of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem — this people will never reconcile itself with separation from Jerusalem,” Ben-Gurion told the United Nations at the time.
After Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War in 1967, Jerusalem was unified and became, in the words spoken by every Israeli prime minister, the “eternal and undivided capital” of the Jewish state.
And yet the international fiction that Jerusalem is not only not Israel’s capital but isn’t even to be considered formally part of Israel has persisted for 50 years now.
Nominally, the idea is that Palestinians need to be allowed to believe they’ll secure sovereignty over at least a part of Jerusalem for them to pursue a final peace deal with the Israelis. And so most of the world has chosen to act as though Israel has no legal dominion over any part of Jerusalem.
That is, in a word, insane. Jerusalem is now home to 860,000 people — 10 percent of Israel’s population, nearly double that of its second city, Tel Aviv. Every one of them, Jew and Arab, is a citizen of the state. (The city is 60 percent Jewish and 35 percent Muslim.) It is the locus of Israel’s government, where the parliament sits, where the prime minister lives and where most government agencies are located.
The pretense has been allowed to continue for two reasons. The most rational reason is this: There has always been fear that any change in Jerusalem’s status might ignite a violent Palestinian response, retard peace efforts and inflame the “Arab street” throughout the Middle East. So why create a crisis when the status quo is at least stable?
Then there are those who simply believe Israel is a bad actor deserving of international scorn and isolation and should not be allowed to get away with it — it, in this case, being Jerusalem.
Trump rightly scorns the latter view and has an answer for the former: “This is a long overdue step to advance the peace process. And to work towards a lasting agreement.”
The Palestinians need to accept reality. They continue to act as though they will get what they want through rejection and resistance and rage. “It is time,” Trump said, “for the many who desire peace to expel the extremists from their midsts. It is time for all civilized nations and people to respond to disagreement with reasoned debate, not violence.”
The Palestinian refusal to accept Israel for what it is and what it has become has been the greatest bar to peace. And there are reasons to believe the so-called Arab street has bigger problems to concern itself with right now than Israel’s capital.
And not just the street — the capitals as well. Trump’s act comes at a time when there is a tectonic shift in the Middle East. If I had told you 20 years ago that Israel would one day find itself in a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, you would’ve had me committed. But two weeks ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign on to a peace deal Israel actually likes. MBS isn’t happy about Trump’s move, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sands are shifting rapidly after decades of stagnation.
In the end, as Trump said, “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital.” Indeed it is. Indeed it does. Bravo.
Wednesday, December 06, 2017
The Taylor Force Act passed the US House of Representatives by unanimous consent on Tuesday, confronting the Palestinian Authority with the prospect of a massive cut in US aid for as long as it maintains its policy of paying monthly salaries and other benefits to the families of slain or convicted Palestinian terrorists.
Named in memory of Taylor Force – the former American army officer stabbed to death during a knifing spree by a Palestinian assailant in Tel Aviv in March 2016 – the legislation prevents the transfer of funds “that directly benefit the Palestinian Authority” for a six-year period beginning in 2018 unless the PA verifiably ends its so-called “martyr payments” policy. The Taylor Force Act also requires the PA to repeal any laws enabling or favoring the payments policy, as well investigate terrorist acts for the purpose of “bringing the perpetrators to justice.”