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Director Rob Reiner’s surefooted political drama LBJ is lifted by an all-in performance by Woody Harrelson as fellow Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson, who inherited the Kennedys’ Camelot—and by a lived-in turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson. Director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, blessed with a far-out script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), boasts a deliriously expressionistic portrayal of Winston Churchill by Gary Oldman, with Kristin Scott Thomas as his marvelously frank wife, Clementine.

Darkest Hour

Jack English/Focus Features

Both films focus on these leaders’ obsession with their unpopularity (“I am unwanted!” rages Oldman’s Churchill on the eve of his elevation to prime minister) and the pathos of being ambitious men who have leadership thrust upon them at the most inauspicious time (Churchill as Hitler’s forces threaten to overrun the UK; Johnson after JFK’s assassination). Both focus on the first days of their ascendancies. And both have implicit spins on the current zeitgeist: LBJ suggests what a real populist leader looks like (and paints Bobby Kennedy as an entitled little pissant); Darkest Hour’s blood-sweat-and-tears heroics invite contrast as, post-Brexit, the UK leaves the European Union. Supremely entertaining food for thought abounds.

This article originally appears in the November 2017 issue of ELLE.


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