DARKEST HOUR! THE COMMUTER! BLACK PANTHER!
Three VERY Different Films. ONE binding Message: Do what is asked of you; BE THE BEST you can possibly be (and then the bigger picture politics will take care of itself?)…
If this sounds like a BIT of a stretch? Well, perhaps it is. What can three movies of differing demographic and antipathetic genre possibly have in common? Well, all three feature pivotal use of trains in decisive moments.
Each film relishes its geography: be it claustrophobic commuter carriage on a train; critical cabinet of war or sci-fi African Utopia. All have outstanding casts, excelling at their craft and supporting both ensemble spirits and genuinely compelling credentials of a leading actor.
And I may touch on those merits and others again. But it’s at once about so much more, politically and philosophically. And in a way? Something more focused and simple in the magic of movie motifs. HEROISM. That unexpected, yet unavoidable call to action that reveals the extraordinary in singularly brave people.
Movies have a duty to, occasionally foster a sense of HOPE, too. HEROES = HOPE. And all three films here: DARKEST HOUR, THE COMMUTER and BLACK PANTHER engender just such feelings. It’s a beautiful, inspirational return to the values on which cinema is founded and through which the medium will be sustained for generations to come.
Starting with DARKEST HOUR: it’s been marketed / thought of as a kind of biopic /war film? Truth is: it’s a personal, intimate character study that just happens to find itself against a backdrop of an advancing world war 2. The result is possibly the most measured portrait on film of Churchill I have seen (among many, from Robert Hardy to John Lithgow).
This does NOT play to the ‘he was perfect’ brigade of fans (sometimes, sadly composed of gangsters, pseudo-intellectuals and wannabe next PMs with a sense of entitlement). But neither do we get some ghastly revisionism (a trend of late that focuses almost solely on Churchill’s faults, failings and misappropriated poster image for a misguided extreme right wing, mostly c/o an extremely extremist left). No.
This is not iconoclasm. Winston is the hero in the titular ‘Darkest Hour’. But he is portrayed as an almost reluctant one in his own narrative. THAT is the balance of the film’s tone; somehow honouring Churchill’s humanity (flaws included) without doing any disservice to his genuinely historic, moral achievement and legendary legacy in leading Britain against the evils of Nazism.
The film addresses the man’s mistakes, head on. A streak of wanton petulance and hedonism is ‘there’ as is the reputation for some military misfires and colonial misadventures. The difference is that those flaws somehow BECOME the very propulsion for Churchill to rise up and confront a far greater concern in the evils of Nazism.
He accepts his flaws, faces those and weaponises the drawbacks in service of a country that had no option but all out war against a menace whose sole goal was world domination, via extinction of its enemies. Winston’s domestic opposition thereby become the weaker, appeasing, hesitant enemies of moral action, albeit unwittingly perhaps and despite what might have been otherwise perfectly laudable aims to avoid war.
So, DARKEST HOUR does indeed give us a portrait of a tarnished man, but also an inescapably heroic one. This is a Churchill that applies his assets (oratory, experience, iron will, charisma, warm warrior wit married to cold calculation) to cancel his weaknesses; rallying a nation to do the impossible. He is not explicitly seeking adventure or adulation but has reached the right stage to embrace those with a maturity, clarity, focus and finally, an empirical measure of success.
Winston’s one (nb speculative / possibly fictitious?) tremor of doubt is cancelled by a moment in the movie that does take artistic licence. He meets a bunch of strangers on the Underground who inspire him to soldier on.
One forgives such leaps and other limits (including a strangely stilted portrayal of Clementine Churchill, some lulls in pace / scope and muddled view of what a typist does?) in view of a performance that will undoubtedly net Gary Oldman the Oscar he so richly deserves.
He warrants accolades not simply for playing Churchill so brilliantly but for ALL his great roles from Dracula onwards. A genuine chameleon, different in all parts, whilst remaining commercially savvy enough to repeat certain beats where required; Gary always struck a balance between independent spirit of creative expression and knowing how to play the system.
Hence, Churchill is such a perfect fit and fittingly, a nation’s ‘darkest’ hour in recent history might just be his ‘finest’ as a celebrated actor? And yes, one can note the role of the prosthetics and those are a marvellous triumph for Kazuhiro Tsuji. But makeup does not make-up a great performance in itself. Oldman’s every pause, wink, nod, smile, shout, shuffle and vocal tick simply ARE Winston Churchill.
(Stop Press: Gary just won the BAFTA! GO ON GAZZA MY SON..I mean..congratulations, Mr Oldman.. 😉
Speaking of Dracula, Liam Neeson once asked to play Van Helsing, perhaps in Coppola’s Dracula film (Anthony Hopkins instead played the vampire slaying expert). Neeson went onto play a range of movie mentors (inc Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), historical figures (Schindler’s List, Rob Roy, Michael Collins), Batman’s father figure come antagonist (Batman Begins / Dark Knight Rises) and even tried a rom-com (Love Actually). But he is now most famous perhaps as a reluctant yet excellent action hero, enjoying a second wind in his career since 2008’s Taken.
And so it is that the Neeson action vehicle is now a seemingly annual event, as the man approaches 65. He has a Harrison Ford quality of the everyman with a special skill, thrust into extraordinary circumstances. It’s immensely entertaining to watch, so let’s hope Liam shares Harrison’s longevity.
There is something likable about how Neeson plays these guys. Even if they seemingly spend half a movie kicking several shades of shit out of baddies, his characters very rarely if ever seek out such action. They rise to an occasion because they simply have to.
In the same manner, one suspects Neeson himself (an intellectual as much as he is action man, without being pretentious or inaccessible) might prefer to perform some weightier, worthier material, but gives the public what they want? World wearily reluctant yet competent, professional and eminently entertaining. Neeson in a nutshell. And THAT is PRECISELY what you get with The Commuter.
The film is to some extent fairly disposable and drab in its predictable beats and motifs. Indeed, it feels like something from the 90s via dash of Hitchcock tribute. Neeson’s co-star in trailers appears to be Vera Farmiga, except she is criminally underused here and frankly the film should be done under trades descriptions for that deficit.
Those minor quibbles aside? The film succeeds as a thriller and in its way, a moral meditation on being a family man, a survivor and an everyman whilst somehow surviving both the corporate world and genuine threats to life and limb.
References to ‘Goldman Sachs‘ and redundancy go hand in hand here with the beats of a Die Hard style one man against the baddies action thriller. That we manage to ‘get’ all of that in one movie, within genre limitations, speaks volumes about Neeson’s charm as an actor and also the reassuring simplicity of good old fashioned heroism, be it real or imagined.
P.S: spot the Neeson in jokes: the girl on the train is called Joanna (cf: Love Actually) and a number on a phone comes up as ‘unknown’ (title of a previous Neeson as everyman in action thriller outing).
Speaking of real/imaginary? BLACK PANTHER successfully provides a Marvel /comic book/superhero story, alongside trappings of traditional espionage thrillers, via hints of intriguing political comment.
Yep: this movie ‘goes there’ (economic inequality, race relations, arms deals and international crime are all covered). And yet? Draws back its vibranium claws just enough, thereby causing comfort rather than distress to family audiences seeking escapist entertainment and refreshingly simple morality fairytales.
The film is therefore, by its nature, critic proof. That is not, contrary to some extremist twits’ assertions, a politically correct agenda at work. It’s just that the film delivers everything one expects and extends the genre’s boundaries without violating or reinventing too radically. There is nothing unmissable here or too groundbreaking. Indeed, elements of the film verge on the mediocre at times (pacing, action choreography, wasted set-pieces that should be either extended or deleted?).
Bizarrely for a Marvel movie there is actually a LACK of world building for sequels or shared universe spin offs. Do not expect any teases for Infinity War, even in the measly post credit sequences. Martin Freeman is also miscast and Andy Serkis hams it up like a fourth former given a sixth form play part.
Freeman is a fine everyman actor but unlike Liam Neeson, that does not qualify him for action hero duties. And Serkis? Without detracting from his otherwise excellent work in motion-capture, he unconsciously telegraphs his laughs and baddie moments here. And everything is wrapped up here in a kind of Disney version of ‘Afreeeeekkkkaaaah’, like an extended trailer for the live action Lion King, via the now obligatory lesson about not ‘building walls’. Needed a Tony Stark cameo too but then so does every film ;).
And yet: this is one of the best Marvel / comic book movies of recent years. Chadwick Boseman exudes a dignity and precise poise, balancing action hero charm with philosophical depth as the eponymous hero. Michael B Jordan is THE best villain in a Marvel movie, ever. The man is a star, simple: he commands the screen.
The women here are genuinely strong without making that a ‘thing’: top marks to Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett. Great to see the older generations represented too, via John Kani (I loved his work since seeing him opposite Val Kilmer in The Ghost and the Darkness back in 1997). And tomorrow’s talent gets a look in through Daniel Kaluuya (soon to be a very big name: he has an interesting part to play as neither ally nor nemesis to the Black Panther).
Above all though? Black Panther is about someone accepting their destiny. The hero wants to be a King but initially presides over a secretive and conservative society yet must confront a villainy with a far greater agenda and evolve accordingly.
The film’s style, structure and soulful substance somehow chart that course with a refreshingly innocent joy and idealism. I therefore recommend Black Panther to family audiences without the slightest of hesitation (12 and above, at parental discretion?). The grown ups can rest assured they can be satisfied too by the movie’s moral motifs and clear call to heroic action in the face of some rather real-world unjust inequalities. And yes, just like Darkest Hour and The Commuter..there is an important bit on a train 😉
And so: there you have it. Three movies. Darkest Hour. The Commuter. Black Panther. They confront and subvert themes and ideas from history /current affairs. And their heroes overcome flaws to confront unexpected and overwhelming odds, thereby discovering the greatest of potential. For that reason? I recommend all three films.
James Murphy is Editor in Chief at Movie Viral. Currently on Half Term. In Wakanda 😉