We never see war in Churchill. World War II is the dark heart of this film about the 96 hours before D-Day, and the prospect of violence and death is in every frame. But we see no fighting, no clashes between Allied forces and Nazis, no blood and dead bodies except in Churchill’s imagination.
Instead, a personal war is waged between a number of headstrong men in suits and uniforms: Churchill versus general Dwight D. Eisenhower, Churchill versus general Bernard Montgomery, Churchill versus King George VI. Smoking and boozing they argue, hiss, fume, and yell. The movie is really one prolonged argument about the great battle to launch Operation Overlord, the joint effort by America and Britain to push Germany back from the Normandy coast and to “liberate Paris,” as Eisenhower says.
Knowing how the story ends — a decisive Allied victory and thousands dead on the beaches of Normandy — is no impediment to retell the story. Director Jonathan Teplitzky, who made his name with the 2013 World War II drama The Railway Man, clearly knows this. With Brian Cox in the role of Churchill he has found a way to forcefully imagine the agony inside Churchill’s mind as he was essentially pushed aside during the final planning of Overlord.
Haunted by World War I memories and his own fears he tries to convince Eisenhower (a strong performance by John Slattery of Mad Men) to reconsider Overlord. The American won’t have it. Backed by Montgomery and the king he tells Churchill to back off. Shocked and angry, the prime minister rants and fights back as he gulps down whiskey and verbally abuses those working for him under the stress of war planning.
Winston Churchill has been the subject of many films. Currently he is a compelling supporting character in the Netflix drama The Crown, where John Lithgow truly becomes the British leader. But Cox is magnificent, too, as the greatest Briton of all time. When shooting the film he was the same age as Churchill is in this movie: 67. And Cox gets it right with the accent, the growl, the gentle smile, the sweating and spitting, and the brilliance of Churchill.
The actor also finds a way to show his weakness. There were alcoholism and bouts of depression and the terrible way he treated his wife. The film shows it all in unflinching close-up. At the same time we feel for the man who, with good reason, feared a repetition of the horrors he had witnessed decades earlier. We can understand his temper and applaud his courage when, in the end, he defends the invasion of France as a crucial struggle for freedom — lines that sound as essential now as they did in 1944.
I could have done without the dramatic blood in the sea during the opening scene. Then again, the apocalyptic, black-and-white battlefield that Churchill imagines during that same beach scene is powerful. It falls into place later when he tells his wife — in a strong bit of writing — how the world loses color during his episodes of depression. Parts of Churchill feel too theatrical. The drawn-out scenes with his wife I found to be distracting from the epic arguments between the men about to face down Hitler. The film could have narrowed its focus even more.
These are small squabbles though with a fine war movie. I should add the era resonates with me, as it should with any European over 40. Our ancestors lived through the horrors of the Third Reich. They witnessed their Jewish neighbors being taken away. Knowing that my parents were young children under Nazi occupation as these men were scheming to liberate them gave Churchill a layer of emotion I didn’t expect to be tapped as the filmmaker brought us into the room where it happened, as they say in Hamilton.
Jonathan Teplitzky and Brian Cox capture a time when men placed their black hats on the table as they entered a meeting, when they dressed well for every occasion, looked each other in the eye as they reasoned, and stood up straight with hands behind their backs, like my grandfather did. Born in 1911, my grandfather was a well-dressed, somewhat rigid, reserved gentleman. The rare moments when he became excited were instigated by memories of World War II. He genuinely loved the Americans, Canadians, and Brits — the liberators of his country and his family. And I have a feeling he would have appreciated Churchill as much as he admired Churchill.