“Darkest Hour — I promise I won’t make any present-day jokes,” NBC News star Chuck Todd vowed at the top of a panel discussion preceding the period political drama’s screening Thursday in Washington, during which participants enthused about Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and everyone tried hard not to draw too many comparisons to President Donald Trump.
Based on Anthony McCarten’s script, Darkest Hour focuses on Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister, with Adolf Hitler closing in on his country.
Some attending the screening seemed to draw comfort that the nasty bits spoken by Churchill’s political rivals in the movie — including that he “lacks judgment” and “we may have to replace him” — echo talking points about Trump heard these days on TV news outlets.Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), for example, noted that Churchill also had been described by non-fans as “selfish” and “only caring about himself.”
“I couldn’t help but think, boy, that’s how I think about someone right now, and that, some way, maybe this will redeem him,” Crowley admitted, without mentioning Trump by name. “I won’t know it until they make a movie about this, 50 years from now,” Crowley said, optimistically.
But Darkest Hour came to be when screenwriter McCarten (The Theory of Everything) looked at some of the greatest speeches ever written in the English language, and was struck that three of Churchill’s were written in one four-week period in 1940, director Joe Wright described.
The movie, Wright said, is a “recognition of the power of the word and the power of political speech to move nations.”
Even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did not to try to argue that any of Trump’s speeches will make any list of History’s Greatest Speeches, though Trump deserves credit for the mileage he gets out of those few words he know. His addresses are less Churchillian than National Enquirer-ian, eschewing the inspirational in favor of the incendiary.
McCarthy, a big Churchill fan, noted that the career politician was a scholar of history “so he knew not to repeat mistakes, and he applied it no matter what was going on.” The lesson McCarthy said he learned from Churchill: Don’t act out of emotion. “With the whole world at war; he was always calm,” he said.
Wright came on board as Darkest Hour director in January 2016, “before Brexit,” he said, “and the film felt very not-topical at all. And then, as we made the film, events around the world unfolded and suddenly the film took on a kind of topicality.”
And, without mentioning Trump by name – there was a lot of not-mentioning-Trump-by-name going on during the panel discussion – Gary Oldman, whose portrayal of Churchill is considered an Oscar nom shoo-in, said that while looking at old Pathe newsreel footage of Churchill for research, he was greatly impressed with the politician’s knack for marketing and “branding” himself, “before that was even a thing.”
Branding himself is what Trump does best.
“He was this round, short man, in these funny Victorian clothes with his Homburg hat and cigar. It was such an iconic silhouette,” Oldman enthused of Churchill. Still, Oldman cautioned against trying to “contrast him or equate him with anyone else,” reminding residents of Trumpland who were attending the screening that Churchill wrote 50 books, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, created 544 paintings and had 16 exhibitions at the Royal Academy, held every major political position, and was commended in four wars.”
Oldman did not mention, but we will: Trump built a real estate empire, starred in The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, and sold steaks.
“He’s often…thought of as this grumpy curmudgeon, this man born in a bad mood, and he’s got a whiskey and cigar, and is sort of shuffling around,” Oldman described of Churchill during the period dramatized in the movie.
Instead, Oldman described watching black-and-white newsreel footage of a 65-year-old man who romped like a 20 year old, moving “around space with a fixity of purpose.”
“He was dynamic; he had this cherubic face with his naughty schoolboy grin, with a sparkle in his eye,” the actor said.
Wright, meanwhile, described Churchill as someone who was “very intense, had this extraordinary energy,” and was “borderline manic depressive.” Despite his obvious physical non-resemblance to his subject, Wright offered the role to Oldman “because he’s quite intense” and seem always to be drawn to play intense characters.
“You can either cast someone who looks like the character or you can cast someone who has the essence of the character and the essence is a lot harder,” Wright explained.
NBC News Political Director Todd noted there are plenty of ways to criticize Churchill’s politics over his long career, and that “we’re in a weird moment right now where re-litigating a lot of history.”
The public wants the “raw stuff, give us everything,” but “we seem to struggle with nuance. We either want to to put them in ‘They’re The Hero or The Bad Guy” and insist, “Don’t tell us bad things about our hero and don’t tell us good things about the bad guy.”
Also in the Thursday night screening audience: Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), Washington Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA), Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NY).
Focus Features will release Darkest Hour in select cities November 22.