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'Darkest Hour' paints a nuanced picture of Winston Churchill

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in
Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in "Darkest Hour."
Jack English
Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in
(L-R) Actor Stephen Dillane, director Joe Wright, actors Kristin Scott Thomas, Gary Oldman and screenwriter Anthony McCarten at the "Darkest Hour" press conference during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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More than 50 years after his death, Winston Churchill is enjoying a huge Hollywood renaissance:

He’s at the periphery —  though not depicted — i Christopher Nolan’s World War II movie, “Dunkirk”; John Lithgow plays him in the TV series, “The Crown”; last year, Michael Gambon starred as the prime minister in “Churchill’s Secret”; and, coming to theaters this week, Gary Oldman plays Churchill in “Darkest Hour.”

Like “Dunkirk,” the new movie from British director Joe Wright takes place as hundreds of thousands of British troops are surrounded on a French beach with no plausible way of escape. But “Darkest Hour” is focused on Churchill and his deliberations with — and arguments against — his closest advisers, including Neville Chamberlain.

Anthony McCarten, who wrote the Stephen Hawking bio-pic, “The Theory of Everything,” is the English screenwriter behind “Darkest Hour.” Much of the movie looks at Churchill’s oratorical skills, and how he decided — against the advice of many — not to enter into talks of surrender with Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

“Darkest Hour” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, where The Frame's John Horn spoke with McCarten.

Interview highlights:

On how the idea for the film came to him during a conversation with a friend about what his next film would be after "The Theory of Everything":

I remembered an idea which, you know, as a writer, you file many things away and you haven't really developed them. And I started talking about this period in Winston Churchill's life, a four week period of really inspired grandiloquence where he wrote three of the greatest speeches ever delivered. And I had made an initial sort of investigation of what were the forces that spurred him to such oratorial heights. And it unearthed a political situation which was really unlike anything I'd seen before. The world was really teetering on the brink, and it was a time when it really defined the future of Britain, the future of Europe, and [Churchill's] place in the world.

On the genius and persuasiveness of Churchill's oratory:

Well, before he was anything else, he was a writer. And he ended up winning the Nobel Prize for literature, so he had a fantastic facility with language. But he was also a great student of rhetoric, and this tradition goes way back to the Greeks. They established a few rules and he was a tremendously fascinated student of rhetoric and how to apply it. And one of the rules is to use the language of the people, to use simple language. And all his speeches— "We'll fight them on the beaches, we'll fight them on the landing grounds"— they're really quite short little contrapuntal words, all of them almost essentially Anglo Saxon. So he was using a language that had direct access to people's hearts, rather than their heads. He also mixed giving you the bad news and really leveling with you with inspirational, hopeful, optimistic projections — that if we do the right thing, we can rise from these terrors into the glorious uplands. And he would bounce between that — scaring you and then lifting you up ... And then he would finish with three appeals — to your courage, to your fidelity to your country, and to your fighting spirit. And by the end, the most sort of abject pessimist was ready to pick up a garden hoe or a broomstick and take on the entire Third Panzer Division. And that was his gift, but it wasn't just a gift, it was a studied thing and he used it like a weapon.

On what we can learn from Churchill's embrace of doubt and differing opinions to come to consensus:

When I read the record of those days ... what became clear is that positions shifted all the time, and Winston occupied various positions, often by the hour. And the soul searching that clearly went on — that really hasn't been spoken about or dramatized, or even historians have sort of not really spent any time looking at that — showed a guy that had to wrestle with doubt. To sometimes hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time, to then go through a period of trying to synthesize those, and then come out with a third idea. Now this is completely the opposite of a dogmatic, rigid approach where I'm going in with my own ideas and, g-- dammit, I'm going to make the world conform to my dogmatism ... And they would have us believe, and this is the interesting bit here, that that is the pure definition of strength — to be unwavering. And to my mind, that's the antithesis of it. You have to be able to embrace opposite opinions, to look at them, put yourself in someone else's shoes. And that doubt is actually part of the prerequisite of a great leader.

To hear the full interview with Anthony McCarten, click the blue play button above.

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