In 1950, Time magazine didn’t choose a “Man of the Year” for their cover story. They decided upon a “Man of the Half Century.” That man, declared by Time’s editors, was the one they deemed as having the most impact on the world for the first fifty years from 1900-1945. They wrote about his contribution, this way, as he helped stem the chaos of the first half of the 20th century:
“As the Twentieth Century plunged on, long-familiar bearings were lost in the mists of change. Some of the age's great leaders called for more & more speed ahead; some tried to reverse the course. Winston Churchill had a different function: his chief contribution was to warn of rocks ahead, and to lead the rescue parties. He was not the man who designed the ship; what he did was to launch the lifeboats. That a free world survived in 1950, with a hope of more progress and less calamity, was due in large measure to his exertions.”
No wonder Winston Churchill, Time's Man of the Half Century, continues to fascinate. According to IMDB.com there are no fewer than 67 titles centering on his legacy, in documentary form, as well as scripted dramas. And in our current cinematic age of one superhero movie after the next, it’s important to realize who the real heroes of the world have been, and perhaps that is what drove the filmmakers to once again tell a story about a man who indeed saved the world. Yet, this new take, a theatrical release simply entitled CHURCHILL, is a very different take on the man's heroics. It focuses on the fears and foibles of the man Time lauded for calling out the "rescue parties."
Written by Alex von Tunzelman, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, and starring veteran character actor Brian Cox in the title role, CHURCHILL presents a much different picture of “The British Bulldog” than we’ve ever seen before. Cox manages to physically embody the man almost perfectly, in all the ways one would expect. He's got the gate, the weight, the facial expressions, the way Churchill exclaimed "victory", or held his cigar down pat. There are shots of him in the film that are utterly uncanny in conjuring up the WWII leader, that's how good his resemblance is. The differences from other portrayals exists in the inner portrayal. Cox's Churchill is wildly different from what most other portrayals. The range of emotions, from pride to panic, make this a wholly arresting and daringly new take on the venerable movie bio favorite. And it's often exceedingly hard to watch. The Churchill here is fallible to a fault, petty and rash, and battling more inner demons that Regan in THE EXORCIST.
In most scripted takes on Churchill, he is almost always portrayed as the irascible yet stalwart statesman. Strong, certain, a bit of a curmudgeon, blunt and righteous in his honesty. This is the Churchill that Time magazine honored, and that most historians focus on, but this showcases more than just that. This explores more of a man torn between duty and dread, history and the future, and how it was ripping him apart inside. It's not a cradle-to-grave biography, but rather one focusing on a specific and short period in a person's life. The focus here is on the battles Churchill had with the other leaders on the Allied side as they readied for the riskiest invasion of the war effort - D-Day.
There have been many explorations of that famous battle as well onscreen, but few have shown the discourse between the leaders plotting the strategic game-changer that D-Day turned out to be as it is presented here. Tunzelman’s and Teplitzky’s effort shines a light on the frenzy and almost panic seizing Churchill in his worries about the timing and effectiveness of such a large scale invasion. And frankly, as presented here, that Herculean-sized battle was almost as ginormous as the fight raging within the Prime Minister.
Churchill suffered from depression, what he liked to call “his black dog", and according to today's knowledge regarding various mental states, his condition seemed to have been a classic case of bipolar disorder. Thus, this film presents Churchill as both bulldog and black dog. And it's hard to watch. It's quite alarming to see him on edge so dramatically. It's even frightening to watch this man we think of as so stalwart, with his sweat and panic stressing him out so completely. It is in many ways, incessantly unflattering. He's portrayed here as willy-nilly, raw-nerved, and snappish in his arguments with other leaders. His worries that the invasion could be a trap, or another version of World War I’s disastrous Gallipoli, and it propels him to lash out all his contemporaries like a bull in a china shop. Yes, he was a soldier who saw way too much death and destruction in his youth, and commanded the disaster at Gallipoli, but what are we to make of the man who started to stave off Hitler early on, before American got off its duff and joined the war effort, shown here as he all but spits and sputters his fear of battle in the war room?
Is this truly Churchill? Indeed, his depression was at times all-consuming. Still, this film pushes this little known part of his story to the forefront and downplays much of his history as the brilliant PM he indeed was. Despite many films and television efforts showcasing parts of Churchill's crotchety temperament, whether it was in award-winning turns by Albert Finney or Brendon Gleeson, none have made the lovable Brit so unattractive.
At one point in the film, Churchill goes toe-to-toe with General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), commander of the U.S. and Allied Forces, in a private conversation. The American regards his British partner as an unstable old fool or even worse, a leader who's completely lost his mojo. Was it as bad as this scene suggests? Historical biopics onscreen necessitate filling in the blanks for conversations not wholly documented, but this one is unlike most you've seen before. The two men seem bitchy and even petty with each other, and it isn't helped by the fact that Ike is played in a somewhat dismissive and superior way by Slattery. (He's still channeling too much of that Roger Sterling one-percenter smarm from MAD MEN.) Some of their dialogue together seems trite, on-the-nose, and petty in a high school sort of way. But it's showcasing the fallibility of these two men. They aren't just world leaders, they're also men with egos and insecurities.
Historian Tunzelman's screenplay may be reaching in places like this, but his desire is to show something different than before. He aims to show just how Churchill’s mental condition affected all that he was doing, even in private conversations about strategy with Ike. Tunzelman shows the ravaged, exhausted and worried Churchill at every turn. And in making his conversation with Eisenhower play the way it does, it renders every moment of Churchill's battle with depression one that could easily lose his friends and allies.
Some have criticized this film for being over-the-top in both how hysterical Churchill is often portrayed in such instances, as well as how some of those scenes have ‘actorly' written all over them. And indeed, veteran actor Cox tears into such scenes with sheer gusto, underlining his character's neediness with every word, gesture and arched eyebrow. It's a shocking portrayal due to the fact that Cox is usually such a restrained presence onscreen.
His screen roles tend towards the intensely quiet villain type. Be it his droll, menacingly bland delivery as the original Hannibal Lecter in MANHUNTER (1986), or his cordial ruthlessness as William Stryker in X-MEN 2 (2003), or even his CIA spook world-weary assessment of everything in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004), Cox almost always underplays, and to great effect. Here though, he pitches his performance loud and manic, often overheating. It comes off as too much a lot of the time, especially when Teplitzky keeps his camera close to his actors’ faces. Still, it’s clear what Cox and Teplitzky have in mind. They're wanting us to be uncomfortable. They want us to feel as discombobulated as the Churchill we're being asked to identify with. They're going for something bigger and more daring here, and Cox bravely gives it his all. And it's enthralling, even if at times, it seems off-putting. (BTW…it’s interesting that John Lithgow is winning awards for his portrayal of an old, conflicted Churchill wracked with a similar fears and shaky emotions on THE CROWN for Netflix. We’ll see if Cox fares as well come awards-time for his harried take. Hopefully, he will merit serious consideration.)
Cox’s scenes with Miranda Richardson as his wife Clementine play very well and may be the best in the film. Relying on his wife for her no-nonsense approach and often blunt assessment of him, Churchill is more recognizable. And likable too. The two are wondrous together and Richardson seems to bring out a tenderness in Cox that makes his Churchill even more fascinating and complex. Interestingly, both veteran thespians remind us with their bold and brave portrayals just how much higher they both should be on the list of the world's greatest actors. They are two of our absolute finest and have been for decades. It's great to see these two, who should be household names, given such juicy, starring roles here. They deserve them. And then some.
The cinematography by David Higgs, the production design headed up by Chris Roope, and the costuming from Bartholomew Cariss are all strong, as you’d expect them to be in a historical epic. But even here, Teplitzky pushes them to make things as startling as his story. Higgs uses lots of poetic, even esoteric, slow-motion images to convey metaphors for Churchill’s wandering psyche. Churchill’s tossed and rolling hat by the sea could almost earn a supporting performance credit. Some of the costuming is just as on-the-nose as that derby that's rollicking in the sand, out of control. Yes, Churchill schlepping around in his skivvies serves to show his everydayness and his vulnerability, but it plays a bit comical. It's by design, of course, all part of this very different kind of bio. This is a warts and all depiction, even going so far as to put a few more blemishes on those warts.
In some ways, this film reminded me of THIRTEEN DAYS, the 2000 historical drama starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood. That film, written by David Self and directed by Roger Donaldson, portrayed JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 as an often petty, uncertain, and manic conversation between leaders trying their best to stave off a nuclear holocaust with Russia, but not always showing maturity and rationality in attempting to. One can argue about certain aspects of that historical portrait as well, but like here, it was intended to show that heroes from history must always be regarded as real people, fallible and vulnerable. CHURCHILL, like that effort, doesn't want to present statues of demigod-like heroes, or dry Smithsonian documents under glass. Instead, such biopics aims to make history breathe, seething with vigor and vividness, and all the more incredible for just how human a drama they were.
The meaningfulness of CHURCHILL, opening today, is two-fold. First, it showcases a leader with all sorts of terrible problems and issues nonetheless rising to the occasion and doing the proper and righteous thing on the world stage. And two, considering what happened with NATO and the Paris accords this past week, this new film arrives with a timeliness that could not be more uncanny. Churchill's story here should be required viewing as a primer for our current American President as he deals with friends and foes on that world stage. Is it possible to upload the film into his Twitter feed?