“He just mobilized the English language and sent it to war.”
So says a rueful Viscount Halifax moments before the credits roll in Darkest Hour, an account of Winston Churchill’s installation as prime minister and the fraught initial weeks of his administration leading up to the events depicted in Dunkirk.
Halifax meant that, at that moment, Churchill had convinced Parliament to fight Hitler to the end, though Great Britain lacked almost every resource necessary to win except resolve. Halifax advocated for a peaceful resolution brokered by Mussolini (which must have sounded less preposterous at the time.)
The film takes great pains to underscore the care with which Churchill selected his words, even showing him changing his first BBC wireless speech as PM seconds before it began. His first speech to Parliament included the elegant turn of phrase, “It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
I think the film takes these pains because, at that moment, words were all Churchill really had. Words that had to forge alliances, stand up to political winds, and most importantly, to galvanize and inspire the public to protect their homeland by any means necessary from an imminent and terrifying threat. Words had to do some heavy lifting back then.
Churchill is portrayed (in riveting, Oscar-worthy fashion by Gary Oldman) as a man deeply conflicted, whose own resolve starts to weaken as those around him equivocate about the best response to the Nazi threat. He knows that what he decides, and how that decision is delivered, both bear heavy consequences. It’s easy to imagine him going over a speech sentence by sentence, trying to find not just the words but the internal rhythms to ensure that it suited both the occasion and his formidable oratorical gifts.
Watching a flawed leader who is aware of his flaws yet deeply attuned to the gravity of his station made for a riveting narrative, but it also made me sad because it’s now tantamount to fantasy. The modern political era, certainly in the US, is bereft of statesmen and orators. It’s no place for people who choose and deliver their words with care and skill. And it most certainly isn’t a place for someone who can appreciate both sides of an argument.
I thought about what would happen here, if a powerful army was at our doorstep and they happened to outmatch us. Can you imagine Donald J. Trump, a man who has only ever used his severely limited vocabulary to mock, bully, and rile, trying to rally all Americans to the fight of their lives? Or to come to an ally’s aid in the utmost of need? For that matter, can you imagine any current US leader using language as effectively as people had to in Churchill’s time, when they never felt certain they were the smartest person in any room?
You can’t, because these are the days of monosyllabic chants like “lock her up” and “build that wall.” The English language has a word for just about everything, but you can’t use the perfect word most of the time because so few people will understand it. You can’t write web copy that uses those beautiful words because it hurts your Flesch-Kincaid score and people don’t search for those words (I write web copy, so I know this to be true). Like many species, these words will continue disappear from our collective lexicon, and we will continue to be the worse for it.
So, see Darkest Hour and let me know if you agree that it’s ultimately about words. Appreciate the fine performances (Oldman especially), the skillful direction by Joe Wright, and the tidy script by Anthony McCarten. Appreciate the attention to historical detail (or sentiment, at least) and the brilliant (but never boring) exploration of inner conflict in the face of vicissitude (one of many great words). But most of all, appreciate that the film loves language enough to dedicate a good chunk of its running time to the beauty and importance of language when inspiration is more important than comprehension. Years from now, when grunts have replaced language, may it remind us that the people we once trusted to lead knew that their words had the power to hearten us, and considered them accordingly.