Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Two great movies

Two of the finest motion pictures of the year, histories really, two films, oddly enough, set in the same moment of time, couldn't be more different. If you haven't seen Dunkirk, brace yourself, but by all means see it. It's all action, but substantive, not Hollywood. I've never been to war, but when that movie's credits finally rolled, I knew I'd been someplace where I'd just as soon never return.

Dunkirk takes us to war. There were moments, lots of them, when I wanted to turn away, wanted not to see what the film so generously shows. The dialogue is minimal; we don't discover much about the whys and wherefores. All we know is that tens of thousands of Brit troops are being routed on the French shore, and the outlook is worse than grim. 

And then, finally--I honestly kept waiting and kept waiting for it--a thousand fisherman and pleasure boaters make the trip over the English channel to rescue those tens of thousands. That I waited and waited and waited for the image of all those dinghies coming over is itself an indication of the film's genius. Even though everyone knows the rescue is coming, when all those little boats show up, the relief is palpable. No film will ever replicate reality, but when the channel fills with rescuers, your heart leaps.

The Darkest Nights has very little of war but lots of terror, the terror war ushers into the hearts of those who have to make vital decisions. It's nothing at all like Dunkirk. You never want to turn away; you want to see every minute. One short sequence of the combat front takes you to a company of soldiers following orders to fight to the finish, a rear guard action. But most of that from above, just as you do other scenes in this riveting movie. Every few minutes the director chooses a shot taken from far above the immediate scene, almost as if to remind you that you aren't there so as to relive the tension of the story the movie tells.

Both movies are scary. Only when Dunkirk ends can you breath again. Dunkirk takes a physical toll. All that action viscerally consumes you. 

The Darkest Hour is scary for old peaceniks like me because I found it impossible not to believe I wouldn't have sided with Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax in "the darkest hour," would have done everything I could to avoid the horror of millions of Brits dying in some impossible dream of, well, "victory" against the madman Hitler. Winston Churchill, portrayed here frequently as a bumbling, overweight drunk, is just mad enough to believe that the only way out of the battle to come is to fight. 

It's a mad idea, really, and the movie makes it seem all of that, even though we know so much more than Churchill and Chamberlin did at the time, even though they had never heard of Auschwitz or Buchenwald or Bergen-Belzen. What The Darkest Hour makes very clear is that for a moment in time Great Britain was absolutely in its darkest hour, a moment when madness had to reign. 

Quite frankly, there were moments when Winston Churchill reminded me of Donald Trump, an eccentric blowhard who couldn't or didn't take the time to think through what was coming from his lips or cell phone. What's scary about the film is that England needed Churchill, despite his moody madness, his incessant drinking, and his mad notion that fighting to the death was the only way to live. 

In his inaugural address, Trump tried to set a vision of the temper of the times that was as dangerous as the world actually was in 1940. That speech, "American Carnagae," may well never see its match because it created an assessment of the nation so bleak as to require the truly moral resuscitation only a "stable genius" could administer. In those moments when Churchill's eccentricities somehow felt akin to Trump's, just remember Churchill was looking at the mass death of tens of thousands of Brit troops on the front steps of a war that, almost inevitably, Hitler would be taking to the British Isles. 

That's a whole different definition of carnage.

Don't miss either of these films. One makes you feel, the other makes you think. They're both incredibly good--which is better is a childish question, even though they're both about the same moment in history. If Hollywood frustrates you, if you think Hollywood couldn't do better at turning out sheer stupidity, be sure to see Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour. It sounds wrong to say it, but it's true: no medium can teach history as well. 

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