Churchill: The Wrong Side of History, by Tyler Smith
A great performance is a terrible thing to waste. And Brian Cox’s towering portrayal of Winston Churchill in Jonathan Teplitsky’s Churchill is indeed great. At this point, it would appear that playing Churchill is a sort of rite of passage for aging British actors, with some faring better than others. With his ability to stay in the moment and often simply exist as the charismatic Prime Minister, Cox crafts a lived-in performance that ranks up there with the best (which, in my view, is Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm). With an actor so willing to put aside vanity and self consciousness, it is a shame that the movie around him is so misguided. There are moments of immense power in this film, but they are always undercut by scenes that cast Churchill in the worst light possible, making him seem abusive, petulant, and out of touch. If Teplitzky’s goal was to make the audience slowly come to hate this bellowing, insecure ogre, then he has certainly reached it. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that Teplitzky and his writer, Alex von Tunzelmann, think that they are merely humanizing Churchill, adding complexity to a titanic figure, giving the audience a deeper appreciation for an otherwise-admirable man. If that was their goal, then they have failed miserably, squandering Cox’s committed performance in the process.
The film covers the 96 hours before D-Day, that pivotal moment in World War II when the tide began to turn against the Nazis. The various military leaders, including Field Marshall Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), are fully committed to the plan, but Churchill is resistant. He remembers similar military strategies from the first World War, which went horribly wrong. He is not eager to see past mistakes repeated and thousands of young men die unnecessarily. And so he stews and argues and storms through the halls of his home and office, tearing into whomever might be in his way, including his patient wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson).
So here we are already in troubling territory. The audience knows that D-Day was an important victory that changed the course of the war. When Churchill warns the Allied generals about the folly of the plan, we are meant to see him as supremely cautious and genuinely fearful of sending thousands to their deaths. Unfortunately, we instead see Churchill as obstructive and childish, obviously on the wrong side of history, and the more blustery he gets, the further detached from reality he seems. This is not a man that we sympathize with. In his resistance, he turns himself into an obstacle that the supporting characters must overcome in order to achieve what we know will be a vital military victory.
There is even a moment in which Churchill prays fervently that God would conjure up a storm and delay the Allied invasion. But, sure enough, the weather holds out and the invasion goes on as planned. This scene reminded me of a similar one in Patton, in which the flamboyant general prays for good weather and receives it. That Churchill’s prayer isn’t answered only serves to make it seem that he isn’t merely fighting against his generals, but against God Himself. There is scene after scene of Churchill’s refusal to go along with the plan, until all traces of heroism and nobility in the character are drained. Even the best screenplays would have a difficult time portraying Churchill as sympathetic in the midst of his wrongness, and Alex von Tunzelmann’s screenplay is far from the best.
There are some notable moments, like when Churchill and King George VI (James Purefoy) have an extended discussion about the true difficulties of leadership. During wartime, being a leader means standing strong and remaining optimistic, even – and maybe especially – when struggling with doubt. It further means sending a generation of young men into danger while staying back at home, safe and sound. Such a thing could appear callous, but that is the nature of leadership. As Churchill desires to go into battle with the soldiers, the King assures him that, while it might feel right in the moment to join the ranks, dying in battle would only hurt the cause, both in logistics and morale. A leader must fight against his feelings and instead do what he knows is correct.
It’s a powerful scene, chiefly because it espouses a counterintuitive and nuanced position. And both Cox and Purefoy handle the emotional and philosophical intricacies of it perfectly. Had the film been more about the true difficulties of leadership, and the possible unpopularity that they lead to, Churchill could have been something special.
But, no. This is just the latest in a long – and increasingly exasperating – line of “warts and all” biopics, in which the director spends so much time on the flaws of his subject that he forgets to show the audience why this person’s story is worth being told in the first place. So, by the time the film tells us that Winston Churchill is widely considered the greatest Briton of all time, we are left scratching our heads, wondering why this loud, stubborn child could ever be thought of as anything but a nuisance.