You know who had a great year? Winston Churchill, who was the star of two 2017 movies, including the just-released “Darkest Hour,” which the audience I was part of applauded before marching out ready to “fight on the beaches” as necessary in 2018.
Britain’s wartime leader was also the unseen hero in a third film, “Dunkirk,” in which that same “never surrender” message from Churchill is read aloud. And he was the subject of the fine dual biography, “Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom,” by Tom Ricks, which ends by arguing that “The struggle to see things as they are is perhaps the fundamental driver of Western civilization. There is a long but direct line from Aristotle and Archimedes to Locke, Hume, Mill and Darwin, and from there through Orwell and Churchill to the ‘Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.’ It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it, and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.” God willing, we’ll agree on that again someday.
Now, Churchill didn’t have a bad 2016, either, as translated by John Lithgow in the first season of the Netflix series “The Crown” and by Kansas City’s Candice Millard in “Hero of the Empire.” In fact, the clarity with which he saw the Nazi threat years before others did is a tale that’s required retelling ever since. Yet I definitely spent more time with the democracy-saving old coot this year than ever before.
Maybe that’s because at a time when facts are so disregarded and language so mistreated, with some expressions overworked and others decommissioned, it’s restorative to watch Churchill win over his adversaries with words that work because they’re brilliantly assembled and true.
These days, our government even holds some phrases hostage. With references to climate change purged from official websites and the Centers for Disease Control urged to avoid using triggering expressions like “science-based” that might provoke congressional Republicans, it’s not much of a leap to Ricks’ other subject, Orwell, who wrote in his novel “1984” that “Science, in the old sense, had almost ceased to exist. In Newspeak there is no word for science.”
The antidote to so much — to Newspeak and word salad and even our intolerable polarization — is there in the speech Churchill delivers in “Darkest Hour,’’ and that’s read in his absence in “Dunkirk.” You know the one: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills — we shall never surrender.” With that hard-truth-telling but also uplifting, we’re-all-in-this-together oration — actually, a series of speeches to Parliament as France was falling — he broke through his own party’s determination to surrender to Hitler without a fight.
Churchill had “mobilized the English language,’’ an adversary says in the movie, “and sent it into battle.” These days, it’s hard to imagine any message, no matter how urgent or well-delivered, uniting Americans around a set of agreed-upon facts in that same way.
In one scene in “Darkest Hour” that’s invented, the new prime minister asks the ordinary Londoners he meets in a subway car, “If the worst came to pass, and the enemy were to appear on these streets, what would you do?” Fight, they all say. “Fight the fascists!” And what would they think about a peace deal, under “very favorable terms from Mr. Hitler?” Never, they answer.
Today, some of those riders might argue that the threat was fake news, or that Nazis weren’t so bad, or that at least Neville Chamberlain hadn’t been responsible for the slaughter at Gallipoli for which Churchill had been blamed.
He’d made many mistakes and was churlish and exhausting. His challenges included parents William Manchester described in “The Last Lion” as a father who “actually loathed Winston” and a mother who “devoted most of her time to sexual intrigue.” He drank, suffered from depression and seems to have stumbled around naked in the small hours, even in Roosevelt’s White House.
But he was also, fortunately for us, acute and indefatigable and right when it counted. And his story reminds us of a time when a country rallied around not just one man, but around one purpose. The great man, in fact, was so beside the point that with the Nazis beaten and the crisis over, they threw him out of office. Even when truth wins, it can be awful to hear.