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Gerson: 'Darkest Hour' proves that history can hinge on a single leader


The Winston Churchill biopic “Darkest Hour” is a movie that should be seen, but not entirely believed. Gary Oldman’s alternately fierce and vulnerable Churchill is a triumph of both acting and the cosmetician’s art. Just hearing him deliver snippets of Churchill’s speeches is worth the ticket price. (Am I the only one who tears up at the words “We shall fight on the beaches”? My wife: “Probably.”)

But the central conceit of the film—that a deflated, defeated Churchill required bucking up by average Brits—is a fiction. Very nearly the opposite was true. The policy of appeasement was broadly popular in Britain during the early to mid-1930s. In 1938, a majority supported Neville Chamberlain’s deal at Munich (which ceded much of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in return for ... nothing). It is more accurate to say that Churchill summoned British courage and defiance by his intense idealization of British character. He saw heroic traits in his countrymen that even they, for a time, could not see.

This is not to say that May and June of 1940 weren’t dark times, even for Churchill. As resistance in France collapsed and Italy seemed destined to enter the war on Germany’s side, Churchill asked his chiefs of staff if it were possible to continue the war at all (they gave a conditional “yes”). The despair implied in that question still startles.

But on June 3, even as British troops were being evacuated at Dunkirk, Churchill’s private secretary Jock Colville wrote in his diary: “Winston is tired of our always being on the defensive and is contemplating raids on the enemy. ‘How wonderful it would be,’ he writes to [Gen. Hastings] Ismay, ‘if the Germans could be made to wonder where they were going to be struck next instead of forcing us to try to wall in the Island and roof it over.’” In the midst of catastrophe, Churchill was dreaming of Normandy (and North Africa, and Italy). Not the thoughts of a defeated man.

Where “Darkest Hour” shines is in presenting the alarming, inspiring contingency of great events. In the spring of 1940, Europe was being shaken by massive, impersonal, world-historic forces—the apparent failure of liberal democracy and free markets, the rise of communism and fascism, the unleashing of anti-Semitism. Millions marched, line by line, to the “Horst Wessel” song or the “Internationale.”

And yet, in saving the remnants of the British Army at Dunkirk, it fell to 665 private British boats (along with 222 British warships) to rescue their country from (likely) capitulation or invasion. All the powerful, impersonal forces funneled down and down to 665 volunteer captains in pleasure craft and fishing trawlers. The future of freedom was determined by the choices and courage of a few hundred free people.

And, of course, the choices and courage of one man. A New York Times review of “Darkest Hour” sneered at the movie’s “great man fetish.” But is there really any doubt that history would be darker if Churchill had truly lost his nerve, or had died when hit by a car in New York in December of 1931 (he escaped with two cracked ribs and a severe scalp wound)? History can hinge on a single life.

From Churchill, we learn to resist pessimistic extrapolation. May 1940 was terrible, but not permanent. We learn the power of unreasonable optimism—the value of planning for revival in the midst of defeat. We see the possibility of leadership that can not only ride the tide but summon it.

Many of us view this example, not only with appreciation, but with longing. The problem of our time is not only arrogance without accomplishment or swagger without success. These are common enough in politics. Rather, it is the arrival of leadership that survives by feeding resentment, hatred and disorienting flux. Leadership urging us—at angry rallies, in ethnic stereotyping, through religious bigotry—to forget who we really are as a people. Leadership that has ceased to believe in the miracle at our country’s heart—the inclusive, unifying power of American ideals.

But the moment is not permanent. Many are looking for a place to invest their hope. And some leader, we trust, will rise who calls his countrymen to choose decency and civic friendship above the destructive pleasures of hatred and blame. Who can see and summon the best in American character, even if, for the moment, it is hidden.

In the meantime, we shall fight on the beaches.

Our Views: Outsiders a common thread in homicide cases

A common thread in Janesville’s two homicides this year is suspects who aren’t from Janesville.

The primary suspect in homicide No. 2, reported to police Saturday, is Julian D. Collazo from Texas, while a second suspect is from Beloit. Police still are trying to figure out what brought Collazo here, though he reportedly had permission to be in the victim’s home on South River Street. The victim, Christine Scaccia-Lubeck, was stabbed more than 30 times, policy say.

The suspect in homicide No. 1, Barquis D. McKnight, is from Beloit, while the victim, Eddie Lee Jones, was from Illinois. McKnight’s attorney is arguing McKnight acted in self-defense, but Jones’ death in May would mark the first homicide in Janesville in three years if McKnight is found guilty.

Police Chief Dave Moore has said there’s no single cause behind this year’s uptick in deadly violence, but the community should take note of Collazo’s alleged gang ties. Police had been watching Collazo, though they had no reason to arrest him before Saturday’s incident.

“We identified him in October,” Moore said at a news conference Monday. “We had concerns about him, particularly with his gang affiliation out of Texas.”

Another commonality between the two, otherwise unrelated homicides is that police quickly arrested the suspects shortly after launching investigations.

Authorities apprehended Collazo and McKnight within hours of the crimes they’re accused of committing.

Taken into custody in Missouri, Collazo made the police’s job easier by driving a car outfitted with OnStar, a GPS navigation system, and Collazo was wearing shoes with blood on them, police said.

Regardless of the help received from suspects, police have demonstrated that Janesville isn’t a friendly place for criminals to do business. While it’s unfortunate the city has recorded two homicides in one year after three years of none, Janesville’s relative lack of violent crime allows police to devote a lot of resources to serious incidents.

Janesville residents should rest easy knowing the homicides weren’t random acts. The victims and suspects knew each other. It’s also worth noting the two homicides occurred within only blocks from each other, meaning the violence is happening within a relatively concentrated area.

It’s also a good sign that, at least in the Collazo case, police already were aware of his presence in Janesville. If officers know about potential troublemakers, they can act proactively and sometimes take steps to address a problem before it results in violence, though the police obviously cannot prevent every crime.

For Janesville, 2017 has been a step forward in many ways. A surging economy and downtown area give the community much to celebrate. But every community experiences a few setbacks, and certainly this year’s homicides and other shooting incidents don’t help the city’s image. At the same time, law enforcement is working aggressively to ensure these cases are quickly resolved.

Your Views: Learn how to provide mental health first aid

Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change has provided free youth mental health first aid classes for almost two years. During that time, trained first-aiders have provided support and referrals to over 600 local youth. Any adult who interacts with youth can benefit from this class. If you could benefit from knowing how to recognize mental health challenges and how to support youth in crisis, please consider attending.

People who've taken the class say it gave them the knowledge they needed to respond to real-life situations. “I was able to ask a girl if she’s suicidal, and she was able to talk about feeling depressed but not suicidal. It opened up our communication,” one person said. Another reported, “I actually was involved with my granddaughter. Her story followed one of the stories a group worked on in training. I appreciated the knowledge given to me on a personal level.”

Register for upcoming classes at or watch Facebook for links to upcoming classes.


Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change project coordinator