Culture

The Greatest Showman and Darkest Hour: Showmanship and Leadership

Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox)
The P. T. Barnum movie soft-peddles exploitation; the Churchill biopic carves out a new approach to true heroism.

The Greatest Showman, about Phineas T. Barnum, is interesting mostly for its politics while Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill, is ideological theater. That may seem topsy-turvy but it reflects the fact that we have entered a strange (dark?) period in which show business flaunts its politics.

Neither film is the historical biography you expect: Barnum’s bootstrap entrepreneurship is romanticized into a family-friendly movie musical starring Hugh Jackman, strutting about among an America’s Got Talent array of motley performers who represent some trendy demography. Churchill’s ascension to Britain’s prime ministership at the onset of World War II, after Neville Chamberlain’s unpopular appeasement to the Axis powers, is acted out by Gary Oldman, who ascends from his previous counterculture parts to a conventional Establishment role signifying Great Actor Versatility.

Both The Greatest Showman and Darkest Hour are conceived for skeptics, with directors Michael Gracey and Joe Wright (respectively) suspending disbelief in order to convey messages that are pertinent to our modern political-cultural tensions.

For instance, it’s generally accepted that Barnum never actually said the line popularly attributed to him — “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But this film redeems Barnum, the huckster extraordinaire, as a proper subject of millennial celebrity worship, a phenomenon in which famous rich people are not only accepted as role models but presented as paragons. In a weak, diversionary subplot, Barnum resists temptation by ruthless diva Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and stays true to the dull housewife (Michelle Williams) whose wealthy background inspired him. This is key to the film’s method of reworking cynicism while, in fact, it cynically suckers viewers into hagiographic admiration.

The Greatest Showman’s sentimentality brings to mind Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), which is the greatest, least sentimental film ever made about the political origins and secret idiosyncrasy of American show business. Yet, instead of subjecting Barnum to Altman and Rudolph’s political scrutiny, screenwriter Bill Condon (associated with some of the worst movies this century — Dreamgirls, Kinsey, the Twilight: Breaking Dawn films) turns the showman’s innovations in advertising and public manipulation into models of humanitarianism. This is showbiz demagoguery.

Barnum’s success depended upon the exploitation of social outcasts — lowly citizens with behavioral eccentricities and physical deformities that he promoted as carnival attractions. Presenting them in production numbers designed as celebrations of brotherhood is Condon’s own, obvious condescension. As intro to the Oscar-bound tune “This Is Me,” a rotund, biracial bearded lady (Keala Settle), heading the chorus line of “freaks,” tells Barnum: “You gave us a family. This was our real home.” Nothing is necessarily wrong with her gratitude except that she and the chorus exist only to be mawkish and beg for our approval through the PC redefinition of “family.”

Barnum’s success depended upon the exploitation of social outcasts — lowly citizens with behavioral eccentricities and physical deformities that he promoted as carnival attractions.

It was funny to see Zac Efron fit right into the insanity of the Golden Globes as he introduced a clip from The Greatest Showman and tried hard not to describe Barnum as the proprietor of a circus. (“I sell virtue” Jackman’s despot brags, like a politician disguising his campaign for votes.) In the movie, Efron plays the rich white kid who wants to rebel and so falls in love with the pink-haired black aerialist Zendaya. They circle each other singing “Rewrite the Stars,” the closest to a romantic moment in a film that ignores the subject of exploitation — the practice Barnum developed into show business, our combined religion and political party.

*****

Former special-effects supervisor Gracey directs The Greatest Showman like an extended music video, combining American Idol–style songs with brass arrangements and choreography that imitate Michael Jackson videos, all mashed into the nonsense extravagance of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. It’s a fantasy world with timely, politicized F/X, and that’s what connects The Greatest Showman to Darkest Hour.

The political intrigue inside Britain’s power structure — from Parliament to Buckingham Palace — gives Darkest Hour a déjà vu quality. Churchill’s inevitable victory over the entrenched ideological prejudices of the established order strikes a contemporary viewer as stylized allegory. It challenges: Can today’s globalist moviegoers still care about the free world’s fate during WWII, the idea of war and preserving nationhood, now that patriotism is deemed unfashionable?

Oldman’s Churchill huffs and puffs his cigar less showily than fans of scenery-chewing will expect. His characterization has been filtered though Mike Leigh rigor rather than Masterpiece Theatre sycophancy. The “fight on the beaches” speech isn’t distanced as in Christopher Nolan’s post-patriotic Dunkirk, yet Oldman’s intensity contains unexpected reserve; it is nobility minus sanctimony. A stunned parliamentarian observes, “He just mobilized the English language and sent it into war!” Bertolt Brecht would appreciate that summation.

Wright imagines Churchill in actual conversation with ‘the people’ rather than lecturing them that ‘that’s not who we are!’

Joe Wright always directs in grand gestures (as in his maddeningly idiosyncratic Anna Karenina), and this film, with its chronological on-screen countdown, virtually parodies Spielberg’s agitprop in Lincoln. Instead of celebrating chicanery as Spielberg and Tony Kushner did, Wright celebrates the great-man-of-the-people theory of history. Wright’s canniest moment, in which the new, harried prime minister escapes Parliament and sneaks into the Underground, reveals Brexit-era populism as the film’s true theme. Our jaded, post-Obama media have poisoned the plausibility of this gesture, yet Darkest Hour initiates a genuine, modern approach to political heroism and the Western sagacity that is out of favor. Wright imagines Churchill in actual conversation with “the people” rather than lecturing them that “that’s not who we are!”

Bulldog Churchill sold a different kind of virtue. Through Wright’s showmanship, Darkest Hour is not jingoism; it is a politically aware, reflective performance.

*****

The Fishwrap of Record ’s review of Darkest Hour ended with scorn, questioning the film’s appeal to nationhood, then snidely adding, “But we have nothing to be proud of.” This was also demagoguery — infecting the arts pages with editorial-page sedition — and it reminded me that Condon’s best line in The Greatest Showman is Barnum’s rejection of a disingenuous reviewer: “All the snobs in New York read him. He does their thinking for them.” To appreciate the confounding political strategies of The Greatest Show and Darkest Hour requires that viewers think for themselves.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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