Who would have thought that two of this year’s strongest contenders for Best Picture would take place roughly at the same time, and cover roughly the same subjects, in completely different ways? If you took the whole movie of Dunkirk and inserted it right at the moment in Darkest Hour when Operation Dynamo takes place you would have the definitive Churchill/WWII movie. But since the evacuation of the 338,000 men across the English Channel isn’t really depicted in Darkest Hour, the two movies don’t so much compete directly in terms of telling a story — but they do enhance and compliment each other and make a terrific double feature seen back-to-back.
Both Darkest Hour and Dunkirk highlight Churchill’s great speech about rising to meet to challenges of war, but only Darkest Hour really shows what he was up against in terms of reviving the spirit of his people in their deepest moment of hopelessness. Knowing more than anyone the daunting task they faced, Churchill mostly bluffed, and Darkest Hour takes us through that process. It was necessary to instill in the British people and eventually the Allies with the cocksure, indefatigable attitude that they could take on the most terrifying force of Hitler and his Nazis. The Nazis and Hitler were amped up with meth. French soldiers were drinking red wine. No one really saw Hitler coming, let alone the armies he would use to steamroll Europe with — well, nobody except Winston Churchill.
Darkest Hour is really about Winston Churchill’s battle to lead the British people into resisting and fighting Hitler vs. the path of appeasement and/or “peace talks” they had been pursuing. Churchill knew there could be none of that, but nonetheless he is pressured to listen when things start going very badly for the British troops. Dunkirk really is that low point when the British are on the verge of losing their entire army. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands were all knocked out of the war in the span of six weeks — how soon would it be before the Nazis took the British Isles? Dunkirk was a turning point in the war, and a devastating blow because it illustrated how utterly outmatched the Allies were in fighting Hitler’s forces. But British citizens in ordinary boats succeeded in conducting a heroic, unprecedented rescue that saved their army.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk depicted that beautifully whereas it is just part of the story in Darkest Hour; Churchill’s speech is used as an epilogue in Dunkirk yet it takes center stage in Darkest Hour. Both are period pieces filled with actors. Both have great cinematography and original scores. Both are vigorously directed and tightly edited. Yet, they are very different films. While Darkest Hour is almost non-stop Churchill talking, Dunkirk has very little dialogue at all.
Darkest Hour is no slow Masterpiece Theater Oscar bait — it is vividly alive and awake and quite exciting throughout. There is no question that Dunkirk is also crafted in a similar fashion. Both films deliver the essential hope we all need right now when faced with everything from climate deniers dismissing record breaking hurricanes to the cruelty of an administration rejecting DACA and threatening to expel thousands of young, productive immigrants, among other daily horrors. We need a Churchill right now and both of these films remind us why.
This won’t be the first time the two films are set side by side. I’m sure there will be plenty more written about why these two movies matter now. And I do wonder if they will be the two biggest competitors for Best Picture as we head into Oscar season. It is, of course, too soon to say with any assurance that they will be. There are many more films to see yet, both at Toronto and afterwards. I feel pretty strongly that Battle of the Sexes will be in the mix, so will The Shape of Water, so perhaps will Call Me By Your Name and maybe The Post, and possibly Mudbound or Lady Bird or even mother! But right now, I think anyone watching this race might find it curious and engaging that these two films would be the first two to emerge as leaders heading into the season.
So let’s look at the categories where the two could both compete:
Dunkirk / Darkest Hour
Picture / Picture
Director / Director
Supporting Actor / Supporting Actor
Screenplay / Screenplay
Production Design / Production Design
Cinematography / Cinematography
Editing / Editing
Costumes / Costumes
Score / Score
I think that’s how it might go. Some of these category nominations could be maybes. But it will be interesting to see if they remain the two strongest films heading into Oscar season, wouldn’t it?