A correction was made to this review on June 3, 2004.
It seems history will judge our biggest icons not by their actions alone, but by the quality of the TV movies about their lives. With that criterion in mind, Lionel Chetwynd’s sound-byte-ready script paints Dwight D. Eisenhower as dynamic as they come. Add to that a straightforward and respectable performance by Tom Selleck and you have an entertaining and worthy tribute come Memorial Day weekend.
Chetwynd and director Robert Harmon (“The Crossing”) manage to find a new angle on a popular wartime tale, bringing to life in detail the strategic coordination of the invasion of Normandy. And while the thought of bureaucrats, military brass and politicians sitting around a table discussing the fate of the world sounds less than enticing, A&E’s comprehensive production is anything but dull.
In 1943, through a haze of cigarettes and cigars and much other huffing and puffing, U.S. Army General Eisenhower (Selleck) is given the job of supreme commander of the Allied forces by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Ian Mune). Churchill, reluctant to give that much control to anyone, reminds Ike that he is the first in history to hold such power, and the pic goes on to detail the problems associated with such power as much as it outlines the plans themselves.
Not all are happy with Ike’s newfound muscle, most notably his British counterpart, Gen. Montgomery (Bruce Phillips), who wanted the job himself. In addition to an increasingly nervous Churchill, Ike has to deal with maverick Gen. Patton (Gerald McRaney), and imperious Gen. de Gaulle (George Shevtsov), the leader of free France.
Ike does have the unwavering support of Chief of Staff Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith (Timothy Bottoms) but faces, among other things, uncooperative weather and largely untested military vehicles. As plans for a secret summer invasion draw closer, Ike has more egos and dissention to contend with than an “American Idol” reunion special.
Between the decisions, he feels the burden and isolation of his leadership. He writes to wife Mamie (unseen here) of the horrors of war. He discharges a military friend for talking too freely in a bar. In one particularly touching scene, he addresses the fresh faces of an airborne division, whose casualties he knows are predicted to be roughly 70%. Ike is advised to keep his inspirational speech impersonal, but instead, the old-fashioned Kansas boy approaches them as one of their own, lighting cigarettes and chatting intimately with boys he knows may not be coming back.
More than just his military acumen, the movie depicts Eisenhower’s down-home charm, his ability to smooth the ruffled feathers of Montgomery and de Gaulle and remain popular with the enlisted men. Although clearly a favorable tribute, the movie restrains itself from manufactured patriotism or pointed parallels to current events. If anything, the voiceover fadeout conclusion is an obvious nod to the fact that, whether created by myth, deed or press, they just don’t make ’em like Ike anymore
It’s amazing how much an absent mustache can physically transform a man, and while Selleck doesn’t always resemble Eisenhower bodily, he captures the trademark modesty and stoicism of the legendary commander. Supporting cast tends to be overshadowed by such an imposing character, although Phillips as Montgomery provides the best contrast as reluctant ally and eventual friend.
Director Harmon keeps camera antics to a minimum, relying on the nuanced performances of his actors, but also swaths the film in a near constant haze of smoke amid the olive drab. Jill Cormack’s sets are stark and realistic, while music editor Craig Pettigrew keeps modest time to the film with an understated score.