"The Darkest Hour."

As I watched the new film, The Darkest Hour, I thought about my recent post, “Poetry for the Soul” https://www.riseupleadershipcoaching.com/blog/2017/12/12/template-pbw3j-zw47r because, ultimately, this is a movie about the power of words as wielded by a brilliant orator. If the role of the poet is to help us live our lives, Churchill saw his role as helping the people of Britain find the courage to live theirs in the face of a terrible war.

The story of Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister ends with a triumphant speech in Parliament to prepare the country for war, shocking the political rivals who thought he had been convinced to negotiate for peace. When the members erupt in unexpected cheers, someone asks Viscount Halifax, the proponent of appeasement who expected to replace Churchill, “What just happened?” He replies, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

It was therefore even more horrifying to think, as I watched the film, that Governor Mike Huckabee had compared Donald Trump to Winston Churchill. Trump may, in fact, be the perfect communicator for our times. He effectively reaches millions with a constant barrage of tweets. I would maintain, however, that his messages are meant to inflame, rather than inspire. By their nature, tweets are meant to be quick and to the point, not to develop rhetorical arguments or create complex imagery.  Written in haste, they nevertheless endure. 

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Churchill went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953, in part for “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” Critical to this statement is the goal of his rhetoric, rather than simply his ability.  Some would maintain that leadership is value neutral and that Hitler, the man Churchill recognized as an evil that had to be destroyed, was a leader. James MacGregor Burns argued that Hitler was a “power wielder,” not a leader,  because true leadership transforms both the leaders and the followers into something more and better than they were.  Based on these criteria, I would, sadly, call Trump a power wielder rather than a leader.

If, as the Daily Herald noted in its review, “the true subject of the film is the atomic-bomb-grade force generated by fusing rhetoric with conviction,” it is also clearly about a flawed leader and human being.  There’s a big question in America at the moment: what does good leadership look like, says Joe Wright, the film’s director. Churchill made terrible mistakes as well as achieving great triumphs, but central to it all was a sense of doubt, and doubt is an important and vital factor of leadership, and democracy itself.”  Churchill is fierce in defense of his convictions. He knowingly sacrifices thousands of British soldiers to save the larger force at Dunkirk because he feels it is vital to the inevitable battles to come. But his doubts about the enormity of what he is asking and whether he can find support for his position brings him almost to the point of giving in to those who demand peace negotiations. He tells his war cabinet to prepare the memo. Then, based largely on his belief that the people will rise up to defend their island and all it stands for (fictionalized in the film as an exchange with common citizens in the Underground), he changes his mind just prior to his speech. When someone comments about this change he says, “If you can’t change your mind you can’t change anything.”

The film was stirring and yet sad. It would be terrible to think that only a war can give rise to a Churchill or that there is no “poetry for the soul” left among our leaders.

Barbara ViniarComment