With his gift for flowing oratory and famously cantankerous demeanor, Winston Churchill is a figure every actor should yearn to play, and Brendan Gleeson assaults the role with full-throated vigor. Continuing with the better-known chapters in his life, “Into the Storm” can’t equal its 2002 predecessor “The Gathering Storm,” which had the advantage of telling a less well-known story — documenting Churchill’s time in the political wilderness before the war. Nevertheless, it’s a satisfying and timely addition that gets stronger as it steadfastly marches on.
Gleeson steps in for Albert Finney, with Janet McTeer in for Vanessa Redgrave as Churchill’s wife Clemmie, who never asked for the anger and doubt in her husband that were a consequence of his role as a wartime leader. At various points, she chides him to “stop brooding” and cease behaving like “a patronizing bully.”
That he was, but Churchill was also precisely what Britain required in its hour of need. Mindful that there’s so much ground to cover, the movie somewhat awkwardly leaps in on the dead run, as the war begins and Churchill becomes prime minister.
At times, writer Hugh Whitemore (who won an Emmy for “The Gathering Storm”) and director Thaddeus O’Sullivan can’t prevent the movie from playing like a medley of Churchill’s famous quotations — “We will fight them on the beaches”; “Never has so much been owed by so many,” etc. Yet it was precisely the rhetoric that he used not only to rally citizens at home but also to rouse the U.S. and President Franklin Roosevelt (a solid Len Cariou), who Churchill admits to patiently wooing with all the intent and purpose of a lover.
For anyone with an interest in WWII, the movie occasionally feels like history once-over-lightly, punctuated and brightened by bits of trivia: The mild heart attack that Churchill suffered (and which was kept secret); his thwarted desire to accompany the troops on D-Day; Stalin’s toasting of Churchill’s valet as a working man. (Stalin, by the way, is played by Alexey Petrenko, who recently appeared as the Soviet strongman in reenactments for the PBS documentary “WWII Behind Closed Doors.”)
The project becomes increasingly engrossing, however, as the war winds down, and Churchill struggles with the prospect of peacetime leadership. This section not only provides insight into the man but also explains how the British could engage in the stunningly ungrateful act of booting him almost as soon as the war ended.
Ultimately, this is Gleeson’s show, and having bounced around in a variety of roles from “In Bruges” to the Harry Potter series, the actor captures Churchill wonderfully — not just mimicking the rumble in his voice but also conveying the gravel in his guts.
It’s no accident, clearly, that HBO scheduled “Into the Storm” on the final day of the Emmy-eligibility window. And since no one else seems to be producing this sort of historical longform fare with any regularity, you’ll hear no complaints from this direction if the pay channel decides to trot out a third Churchill biopic before another seven years elapse.