Gary Oldman chomps a mean cigar in the Darkest Hour. (Universal Studios image)

Reel Reviews: War from both sides of the desk

We say, “Forgive these films their faults and they will be entertaining enough.”

Darkest Hour is the tale of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) stirring turn as England’s Prime Minister during the Second World War. 12 Strong is the tale of a small unit of American soldiers, dropped into Afghanistan in October of 2001. Led by a rookie Captain (Chris Hemsworth) they team up with a local warlord to pinpoint Taliban locations for incoming air strikes.

We say, “Forgive these films their faults and they will be entertaining enough.”

Darkest Hour is the better of these two films artistically.

Taking place in the 1940s makes it a bit of a period piece and production value is added in the process of setting and costuming. As such, the film invites us to believe that we are privy into the lives of the characters, in particular that of Churchill. Looking and sounding like we are in the right place at the right time is key to a film’s ability to engross and Darkest Hour succeeds in this endeavour.

So to is it successful in it’s portrayal of it’s characters, at least in terms of the actors chosen and their performances. Everyone is fine and as usual, Oldman is amazing, disappearing into makeup and performance, becoming Churchill, an aged but energetic man.

A good part of Oldman’s portrayal leads us into an understanding of his character: he’s funny, brash yet sympathetic, he’s got a lot of energy and puts in a great deal of work, despite smoking and drinking way too much. Oldman’s Churchill is a man running on fumes, desperate to save his country from Hitler. Oldman is usually amazing and one of the best actors alive, it’s not surprising that he’s getting accolades for his work in this film.

However, the film itself is held back by the telling of the story. Perhaps it is due to the tidiness required to wrap up such a combination of character study and political epic within nearly two hours, but the film is often too simplified.

Darkest Hour tells a story of placation and surrender, only Churchill wants to fight, everyone else in the story, from the King to the parliament, can come up with no solution beyond sitting down at Hitler’s table to work out some kind of deal. I’m not sure if this is the history of the event, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be accurate, but as an audience member, it just made Churchill seem like the only brave politician in a sea of cowards, which didn’t help suspend my disbelief.

12 Strong, as an American film about American soldiers, was something I dreaded watching. These things tend to be propagandist at the least and sickeningly so when done poorly.

However, 12 Strong did not annoy me or bore me, except for a small battle portion of the film near the end where everyone was running around shooting at each other, just like they do in every other movie about killing.

In this film are several fine actors, including Michael Shannon in perhaps his most accessible, human role as a commanding officer. All of the characters are already experienced soldiers by Sept. 11, 2001 and the next day are champing at the bit to retaliate.

This feels realistic and the film doesn’t play up everyone’s feelings on the matter, with stirring music and flapping flags. Once they get to Afghanistan, which doesn’t take long, either in real life or the film, 12 Strong becomes quite like war films of old, with men charging at each other on horse back and occasionally calling in bomb strikes. Horses, used to travel the Afghanistan mountains, adds to this romantic notion of war and makes things more cinematic, but is merely window dressing for what ultimately is a film about death from above brought about by hooves on the ground.

The worst thing about this film is its depiction of the Taliban as enemy. There is one awful scene to summarize why they are the enemy that is supposed to also justify the operation and perhaps it does, I just didn’t need to see it. Without this scene the enemy would have remained blips on a screen and 12 Strong would have seemed stronger, certainly more American.

Taylor gives Darkest Hour 4 cigars out of 5 and 12 Strong 2.5 laser pointers out of 5.

— Brian Taylor and Peter Howe are film reviewers based in Vernon. Their column, Reel Reviews, appears every Friday.


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Chris Hemsworth rides a mean horse in 12 Strong. (Warner Bros. image)

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