With a spate of recent film and television depictions of Britain in WWII — Dunkirk, The King’s Speech – or just after, like The Crown, it would have been easy for Darkest Hour to be white noise. After all, it’s the politics behind the evacuation of Dunkirk, which is decidedly quieter than bombs exploding on the frontlines. However, there’s nothing quiet about this film. Director Joe Wright has an explosion of his own in the form of Gary Oldman. Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill is equal parts vulnerability and booze-fueled fire in the belly, spitting and sputtering, jowls wobbling in righteous ferocity.

We open on a country in crisis. It’s May 9, 1940 and the opposing party in Parliament has called for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Allies France and Belgium are about to be invaded by Hitler’s forces and many feel that Chamberlain got them to this point. Chamberlain, who is dying of cancer, decides it best to bow out gracefully. In his place, his inner circle begrudgingly places Winston Churchill, largely because he’s the only conservative that the opposing party will accept. This is mainly because he has flip-flopped between parties over the course of a decade in order to suit his own means.

It feels like mere minutes into his new role as PM that Churchill is challenged by his war cabinet. They insist that this late in the war, with the annihilation of their army imminent, the only rational course is to pursue peace talks with Germany and have Italy’s Mussolini play mediator. Churchill is indignant. “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” he bellows, slamming the table.

When he balks, his cabinet members begin scheming to replace him. They figure that if they can get in writing that he is completely opposed to negotiating with Germany, then they will have grounds to resign as a form of protest. If key members leave one-by-one, they believe it will have a domino effect that leads to Churchill being ousted.

Despite the threat of a coup, Churchill sticks to his convictions with the help of those around him, notably, his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who isn’t afraid to put him in his place when he’s “being a brute”, his newly appointed typist, Ms. Layton (Lily James), and King George VI himself, played superbly by Ben Mendelsohn. Churchill even gets a confidence boost from the public in a (surely dramatized but still touching) scene on the London Underground.

The payoff of all of this is the successful execution of Churchill’s infamous Operation Dynamo in which 860 civilian vessels enabled the mass evacuation of the soldiers trapped in Dunkirk. He gets the boys home, and goes on to fight as PM for five more years until the surrender of Germany.

The story is uplifting and interesting, the supporting cast is terrific, and the film is visually stunning. Wright knows drama and beauty–that much is evident. As great as it is as a whole though, this is really Gary Oldman’s time to shine. Much of the film he is nearly unrecognizable and it isn’t just the makeup. He is Churchill. He embodies the figure we are all familiar with but also brings about a new one that is conflicted and scared. It’s a dynamic, nuanced portrayal that could have easily been a caricature. Frankly, it’s award-winning.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, Darkest Hour opens in theaters November 22nd. Take the time out of your vacation to watch Oldman’s commanding performance as the leader England didn’t want but so desperately needed.