Darkest Hour Directed by Joe Wright, written by Anthony McCarten. Starring Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas. UK, 125 minutes, IIA. Opens Jan 4.
The concept of exceptionalism is a funny thing. No one person or nation will take credit for being spectacular, yet when it’s hoisted upon them, by internal or external forces, it’s eventually worn like a comfortable sweater. At a time when Americans, as single people, are being singled out (fairly or not) for their foolishness thanks to their duly elected leader, a reminder that they can be exceptional is welcome. Similarly, while the United Kingdom as a nation struggles to redefine itself and its place in the world thanks to its legally accepted option to break from Europe, a reminder that they can be exceptional is welcome.
In Stronger, director David Gordon Green continues his march toward topical filmmaker by exploring the real-life struggle of Boston Costco worker Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both legs in 2013’s marathon bombing on the road back to something akin to normalcy. In Darkest Hour, Atonement’s Joe Wright directs Gary Oldman to a (probable) Oscar nomination as Winston Churchill in the first weeks of his tenure as UK Prime Minister at the outset of World War II. Both films trade in righteous indignation, self-doubt, and ultimately the kind of quiet fortitude that makes the two men at the center of each story so exceptional. But only one has the grace to acknowledge the flaws that make its main character human — and it’s not the one you think.
When Stronger begins, Bauman is a working-class nobody trying to win back his on-and-off girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany, excellent), living with his shrill, opportunistic mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), and hanging out with his casually racist and homophobic buddies at the bar. Life changes drastically when he gets out of the hospital a freshly mined amputee and has to restart his life as a symbol of uncowed civic resilience.
Stronger Directed by David Gordon Green, written by John Pollono. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany. US, 119 minutes, IIB. Opens Dec 28.
While there’s plenty of “Baawwston Straawwng” sentiment in the film, Green and writer John Pollono never paper over Bauman’s moments of self-pity, selfishness, outwardly directed rage, Patty’s ceaseless ability to make the story hers, and his family’s fractious dysfunction. They do their best to make them real people, and Gyllenhaal makes Bauman empathetic even when you hate him a bit. It’s not hard to sympathize with someone caught in the 24-hour Twitter cycle that just wants to get better on their own terms — and not have the weight of an entire city’s expectations on their shoulders. In the end, Bauman is exceptional because he’s not exceptional: he is us, and he blindly blunders through a bizarre situation the way most of us would.
Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was not one of us. A lifelong public servant who managed — as Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax describes it in Darkest Hour — to weaponize the English language, Churchill was indeed exceptional. His unwavering faith in British resolve led to the evacuation of Dunkirk — the weeks around which set Churchill on the road to legendary status — and rallied parliament and the people to resist Hitler and “never surrender”. He’s the man that saved Western Europe, in case you forgot the British prerogative to leave it.
Though the massive evacuation was covered more creatively in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk this summer, there is no denying the brilliance of Oldman’s committed, surprisingly unflashy performance. Without him, there’s simply no movie, though it’s deftly supported by Wright’s evocative visuals. Also refreshing is the realization that when all is said and done, this is a war movie with no war in it. That said, Darkest Hour is cut from the same cloth as The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, and The Queen, in that it’s a weak, hagiographic biopic purpose-built for awards consideration for its lead actor. Oldman is better than the material, which is less an examination of what makes a leader great than it is a salve to a national pride.