In Dee Rees’ superb movie “Mudbound,” which scored four Academy Award nominations but not a best picture berth, there is a flashback sequence wherein a young U.S. Army Air Forces veteran of World War II tells his friend that he was saved from certain death by a black fighter pilot with exquisite timing.
The veteran is white. His friend, a fellow vet, is African-American. The two are living outside Marietta, Miss., in the mid-1940s. The armed forces are still segregated. Rosa Parks has not yet refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. The civil rights movement has yet to ignite. In Marietta, Jim Crow still has years to go. For one of the parties, this friendship will prove very dangerous.
But Rees’ Netflix-distributed film — which is based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan and does not shy away from the graphic depiction of racist atrocities — still leaves the viewer with the sense that the old ways are numbered, that the racists will eventually breathe their last and be vanquished, that there is hope for America, that the war has not just been an upending of normalcy but a catalyst for positive change.
There are at least three movies dealing explicitly with the legacy of World War II in this year’s Oscar crop, and all of three of them make a version of that point. Pondered together, they make a very different statement from the traditional war films of the 1940s and ’50s, usually peddling inspiration within existing social and authoritarian codes, and from the group of subsequent films that emphasized the pain of the war, such as “Saving Private Ryan,” a film made in 1998.
Power of the people
Both Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” and Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” preach the moral authority of ordinary people and, as a corollary, the obligation of democratically elected officials not to lie. Even in times of war.
“Darkest Hour” is the gripping story of how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill marshaled his country to fight Adolf Hitler to the death, not to appease him by making a deal through his fellow fascist Benito Mussolini. The primary impact of the film is to remind us all how resistance was, in fact, just one possible political choice for the British in the early 1940s. And a tough one. Which is very easy to forget.
In the film’s most important, and moving, scene, Churchill abandons his official car and takes a trip on the London Underground, where he encounters a car full of diverse but steely British citizens, all ready to give their all in resistance against Hitler. These ordinary folks buck up the dithering P.M., who has to deal with the mealy-mouthed likes of Neville Chamberlain (Mr. “Peace for Our Time”) and Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax, who views making a deal as essential to the survival of the island.
Only after his Tube ride can Churchill summon the courage to make his famously Shakespearean “We shall fight on the beaches” speech in the House of Commons. The film suggests it was co-written by people on a subway train.
It’s a fictional scene, of course, and it has irritated the more conservative wing of the British Churchillians, many of whom dislike how “Darkest Hour” dispenses with the usual Churchillian swagger and imagines a doubting, alcoholic, eccentric and far-from-decisive leader, a “puppet of the people” who needs to be buoyed by a trip on the District Line among those who were looking to him for leadership.
But that’s the point of the film: Authoritarianism had morphed into fascism, and could not be vanquished merely by titled white male elites. Churchill had to learn to be other than himself in order to lead. It’s a very 2018 point of view, of course, but that does not make it less convincing.
“Dunkirk” is not that different — inevitably, since Nolan’s film is all about the one incident in World War II when the citizenry — the citizenry of a certain age, to boot — bailed out the military strategists.
Nolan, who understands complexity, hardly is a triumphalist storyteller, but the takeaway of the movie still is that the war had undermined the class system, reminded the elite of their dependency on ordinary people. It reminds all of us of how much the war reduced previous prejudices to rubble and put in place so much of what we now think of as social progress.