Last year, Hacksaw Ridge snuck up on Oscar pundits by receiving a surprise best-director Oscar nomination—along with five other nods, including best picture. It was a wake-up call indicating that despite the Academy’s much-touted diversity pushes, the voting body still contains plenty of traditionalist members with very specific (and, perhaps, narrow) views of what constitutes great filmmaking.
They thought they’d learned their lesson in 2018, when those same pundits widely assumed the majority of Hacksaw Ridge voters would flock to Christopher Nolan’sDunkirk—another World War II story displaying an immense level of craft in its combat sequences, as well as a stirring and hopeful ending. And Dunkirk certainly did well; the film ended up getting eight nominations in total, and it could be on the path toward a surprise best-picture win. But another W.W. II film also ended up storming the nominations—one whose success was somewhat less anticipated. Darkest Hour was cited in six categories, including a best-picture nomination that few pundits, if any, saw coming.
So why were the the Oscar prospects of Darkest Hour (beyond a presumed best-actor win for Gary Oldman) so widely underestimated? The biggest lesson here is that Hacksaw Ridge actually has far more in common with Darkest Hour than it does with Dunkirk. The voters who elevated Hacksaw into last year’s best-picture race likely weren’t responding to its depiction of combat as much as they were responding to its classic portrayal of heroism.
Hacksaw Ridge was a true story about a Great Man doing Great Things, the way Great Men used to do Great Things. For the voters who respond to these sorts of stories instinctually, Dunkirk—a tense and relatively brief movie about nameless characters orchestrating a mass retreat—wasn’t going to cut it. But Darkest Hour, in which Winston Churchill convinces a nation to stand with him in refusing to allow England to surrender to Nazi tyranny? Now that’s the stuff.
More broadly, it’s a mistake to think of the Academy as some kind of monolith. Moonlight’s win may have signified the ascendance of a "New Academy," but that doesn’t mean the old Academy no longer has enough voting power to exert any will. A film will get nominated for best picture if 5 percent of the Academy—some 350 members—names it their first choice on their nominating ballots. So the old Academy certainly retains enough power to get a film to Oscar night, even if that voting bloc probably is no longer quite big enough to secure a best-picture win on its own.
Similarly, in the wake of Moonlight, it’s suddenly become normal to see a best-picture race filled with lovely indies (Lady Bird, Call Me by Your Name) or genre films that captured the zeitgeist (Get Out, The Shape of Water). But there are still a lot of (very) old Academy members who have very precise ideas of what an "Oscar movie" looks and feels like—and if those ideas include Great Men doing Great Things, well, the rest of this year’s nominees just weren’t scratching that itch. In Dunkirk, the characters are being rescued rather than doing the rescuing. Darkest Hour was—or at least should have been—the obvious choice to inherit that particular mantle.
Unless there are no obvious choices. Interviews with anonymous Academy members published in the past two weeks show that there’s much less groupthink in this 8,000-plus member body than most of us would assume. Some members say they feel compelled to consider diversity and representation when voting, while others emphatically refuse to be bothered with it. Some can’t stop glowing about Three Billboards, while others found its character arcs completely unbelievable. And the same voter who told the Daily Beast that they’re "completely confused by why [Get Out] got all that attention" also confessed to liking Darkest Hour so much that they’ve already watched it five times.
It’s useful to remember that the Academy actually does have some conservative constituents. (Jon Voight and James Woods are both members.) Whether that voting bloc made a difference in pushing Darkest Hour over the finish line—or could help it win awards beyond best actor—is anybody’s guess. But especially since Mike Huckabee spouted his ludicrous Trump-as-Churchill comparisons on Twitter in December, it seems safe to assume that Darkest Hour has enjoyed the full attention of the voting body’s right wing.
Of course, maybe voters also just like Darkest Hour on pure merit. It’s a wonderfully made film, as evidenced by its four nominations in the craft categories. Some may find it a little too slow, insular, by-the-numbers, or stylistically archaic—and they’re entitled to that opinion. Some may also dismiss the movie as "Oscar bait," though that argument is slightly less plausible; if you’re a producer or studio focused on Oscar glory, you probably don’t turn to the director whose previous movie was Pan.
Regardless, Darkest Hour is this awards season’s most obvious and accomplished example of traditional filmmaking. The film also exhibits a classical level of cinematic elegance, the sort a certain cadre of voters may be explicitly seeking. And of all the 2018 best-picture nominees, it probably checks off the most boxes on the Oscar movie smell test. We should have seen Churchill coming.
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:11 Amazing Gary Oldman Transformations
Sid and Nancy
It was the role that caught everyone’s eye. In the 1986 biopic, Oldman made a star turn playing Sid Vicious, the raucous bassist of the Sex Pistols. Oldman’s performance is at once manic and nuanced, an in-depth look at the late punk star’s doomed inner life.Photo: From Samuel Goldwyn Films/Everett Collection.
Prick Up Your Ears
Based on the tragic, true story of Joe Orton, this 1987 biopic earned Oldman the lion’s share of praise for his nimble portrayal of the successful British playwright. Roger Ebert was an early fan, hailing his performance as one of the best of the year.Photo: From ITV/REX/Shutterstock.
Oldman turned in a mirror-image performance as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s lengthy, Academy Award-winning 1991 drama.Photo: From Warner Bros/Everett Collection.
Bram Stoker's Dracula
Oldman was a gothic star in this 1992 vampire blockbuster, playing a trim young Dracula, then switching it up and layering on the makeup to play a wizened old Dracula.Photo: By Ralph Jr Nelson/Zoetrope/Columbia Tri-Star/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
The Dark Knight
Oldman finely disappeared into the role of dependable, mustachioed Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s sleek 2008 Batman film.Photo: From Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Even though Oldman is an established chameleon, he often returns to the classic task of playing dramatic British gents, as he did in this 2011 adaptation of the John le Carré novel of the same name. The performance earned him his first Oscar nomination for best actor.Photo: From Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
And here it is, the movie of the moment. In the Joe Wright-directed drama, Oldman plays Winston Churchill, turning in a formidable performance as the iconic English leader, despite the layers of heavy makeup he had to wear. Oldman is now the favorite to win the best-actor Oscar this Sunday.Photo: By Jack English/Focus Features.PreviousNext