There is one highly argued idea in theorizing about history, under Scottish writer Robert Carlyle there is the Great Man Theory. In essence it is great men—leaders, generals, artists, scientists, inventors—who drive the wheel of history forward. Herbert Spencer argues against this notion, noting each man is a product of his environment; hence, history is not a product one single individual, as the individual themselves owe much to their surroundings and upbringing. The Great Man Theory is becoming even more detested as of recently. People are in favor of a history from below, placing emphasis on ordinary people. Plus, most of the time great man history follows white Anglo Saxon protestant males, a majority of the time at least.
Darkest Hour does not exactly challenge the Great Man Theory very much; however, what it does accomplish is focusing more on the man than the great. When it comes to history, we tend to get saddled with great men in post that we completely erase their history and historical context. We look to people like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. who are seen as idols and winners of their causes. Everyone is on their team, and if you are not, then there’s something wrong with you. Both of these figures, before they entered martyrdom, were detested by their public, colleagues, and the establishment. In the end, they become great with no flaws and, instead, became something like gods of marble. This is where Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill comes into play in Darkest Hour.
Churchill is seen as rude, arrogant, selfish and not suited for the job—he is always smoking, drinking, can be quite vulgar as he runs around in his bathrobe or dictates from the toilet. He is stubborn and even manages to make his secretary cry. All around, he is hardly a glamorous man. Given the combination of make-up and Oldman’s performance, this comes out perfectly, and at times I truly believed that was Churchill on screen and not Gary Oldman. You find this man odd and somewhat entertaining, but you do not necessarily like him. But guess what? That’s okay.
One can easily assume the picture is a mere run-of-the-mill biopic of the British prime minister of World War II. Yet, it only follows the first month of his term as prime minister. We all think of Churchill as the man who told the British to “never surrender” and who stuck it to the Nazis, yet this historical picture shows a man out of touch to some degree. He is ready to wage war when they are strapped for resources and men beneath have neither the courage nor steel to follow him. Meanwhile, at the top with the “great man” are leaders who do not want Churchill around at all. The former prime minister could care less for him and nor could Lord Halifax, a many with an impressive resume and list of honors. Halifax and the prime minister are ready to capitulate and negotiate peace with the Germans. Again, this was the mood at the time, before all the hurrah and glory of Churchill in post-WWII world: it is better to have peace than to march into war and probably lose. They try all avenues to get Churchill to change his mind or blocked, and Churchill even manages to become emotionally crippled by this which involves a great scene with the King, played by Ben Mendelsohn. Again, this man—and not some marble figure—has moments of weakness.
I would argue there is a lot to learn from this film—and I do not mean this in some professional, educational manner. What we can learn is that even our leaders and so-called “great men” are still just that: men. They too are human with their own quibbles, weaknesses, and flaws. We cannot learn from perfection. People learn best from example, from actually people with their own flaws and similarities.
Skyler Sneathen is a happily married man with a kitty cat for a kid. He's going to school to be a high school social studies teacher and also loves comics and nerdom.
Follow Skyler on Twitter @SkylerSneathen.