Light in Darkness

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill (Focus Features)

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill (Focus Features)

On the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, it seems fitting to comment on the new film, The Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman delivers a terrific performance as Winston Churchill, called to serve as Prime Minister in 1939 in the face of Nazi aggression abroad and political backstabbing at home.

But the film offers even more than great acting. In a time when people assume that politicians are sexters, butt-grabbers, or worse--puny men who cannot control their own lowest passions, much less the destiny of nations--the great virtue of the Darkest Hour is that it shows Winston Churchill as an undoubtedly higher human type, elite. This is no hagiography. He is not depicted as a perfect. But neither is it a "psychological" explorations of a "great" man's flaws. Churchill is smarter than others. He is braver than others. And he can drink more than others. Nor does he make any passes at his secretary.

The true statesman (like the true economist) must be able to not just to see, but to foresee, the true good, the natural conditions on that good, as well as what seems good to most people--and the distance among the true good, the possible good, and the seeming good. This films shows Churchill seeing these complexities far more clearly and far earlier than his compatriots. Also, it does what is almost impossible for films, which specialize in the depiction of deeds: it does justice to Churchill's greatest actions--his words, his speeches.

Finally, by showing how clear-sighted Churchill was in the face of tyranny--"You don't negotiate with a tiger when your head is in his mouth!"--it reminds us today, when glibness is honored, of something Churchill never forgot: while words are indispensable, they have their limits in politics. Eloquence is no substitute for strength.