In a historical biopic, nothing can shed light on a legendary figure — or, at least, knock him off his plaster-saint pedestal — quite like being depicted as a stooge, a bully, and a fool. In “Churchill,” a drama that unfolds during the 96 hours leading up to D-Day, Brian Cox plays Winston Churchill with roaring conviction, all fire and bluster and lion-of-Britain piss and vinegar. Yet for most of the film, he isn’t a valiant leader charting a course toward victory — he’s the one man standing in the way of it.
Churchill, the Prime Minister of Britain, is absolutely sure that the massive plan code-named Operation Overlord, which is set to kick off on June 6, 1944, with 250,000 Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy, is a disaster in the making. He’s convinced that it will result not only in massive casualties, but in the Allied forces losing the war. “Churchill” is a small, watchable, rather prosaic backroom docudrama about how Churchill, during that four-day countdown, fought the plan with everything he had, only to finally submit to the idea that he was on the wrong side of history.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky in a visually functional, destined-for-VOD way, “Churchill” opens with images of Winston walking along the shore, fully clothed (he looks, if possible, like even less of a beach person than Nixon), imagining that the tides washing up around him are surging with blood. That’s the kind of movie metaphor that announces itself with too much fanfare — we get it, he’s got the horror of war on his guilty conscience — and “Churchill” has the slipshod feel of a film that has taken some rather drastic historical liberties. It deals with the moral reticence that Churchill felt over a far more extended period and compresses it into a scant few days.
The Churchill we meet has led Britain through the war, yet he’s at the end of his tether. A whiskey-swilling lush, a pedant, and a brilliant if overly obsessive wordsmith, he is woken up at noon on the floor of his office, where he’s presumably recovering from a bender. It’s there that he begins to work out the final draft of a speech, hemming and hawing over whether to use the word “trials” or “tribulations.” He is then driven to a mansion outside London for a summit meeting with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), the supreme commander of the U.S. and Allied forces, and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), the British commander of the Allied ground troops, who are finalizing the plans for D-Day.
As Churchill draws his line in the sand, voicing his wrathful objection to what he considers an inhumane military plan, it’s clear that the speech he was fussing over was this one — a “spontaneous” plea for restraint delivered in the King’s English. Churchill’s belief that the Normandy invasion will turn out to be a hellish apocalypse of wasted carnage — he’s right, of course, about everything but the wasted part — is based on his experience of World War I, in which he proved his bravery on the ground and observed, close up, the meat-grinder horror of trench warfare. The gruesome madness of WWI was stamped forever on his reputation when he championed what turned out to be the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, a stain he’s been compensating for ever since.
Churchill was 69 years old when the events leading up to D-Day took place, and that’s how old Brian Cox was when filming commenced last year on “Churchill.” Cox has always had a brash energy, but he looks right for the part now, his pale face creased with furrows and pockets that he wears like fleshy armor. Chomping on an oversize cigar that he wields like a weapon, the actor slithers inside Churchill’s heavy, sagging flesh and morose embattled fury. He does a fantastic impersonation of Churchill’s stentorian British tones, and he uses one classic Cox-ism that works perfectly, his mouth dropping open in a gape of woe, almost as if that mouth was an open wound.
In Winston’s mind, the plan for D-Day is so wrongheaded that it’s almost a tautology: younger heads than his blindly repeating the tragedy of the last war. It never occurs to him that he’s the one fighting the last war — the quintessential military mistake. John Slattery isn’t the first actor I would have thought of to cast as Dwight D. Eisenhower, but sporting a comb-over and an air of unironic urgency, he does a fine job, investing the role with the quiet command it requires. Ike, having registered Churchill’s moral objections to D-Day, wastes no time reading him the riot act, and letting him know that the plan is going forward. This leaves Winston looking like an executive who’s been kicked upstairs. He still thinks of himself as the fearless leader who led Britain through the Blitz, but what he’s really fighting is the new world order. It’s America’s war now — he just lives in it.
These scenes have a brittle brinksmanship that’s entertaining and, in their way, impactful. Churchill’s motivation, the movie implies, isn’t as high-minded as it sounds. He’s caught up in the mythology of himself as England’s savior. He grieves at the prospect of young men going to their deaths — but what, exactly, is his alternate plan? “Churchill” suggests that Winston Churchill, while one of the most inspirational political leaders of the 20th century, may have gone through a period when he was too civilized to fully grasp the savage relentlessness necessary to defeat an enemy as extreme as Adolf Hitler.
Then again, nearly everyone around him understands it. “Churchill” is a lively but repetitive movie, in which Churchill, in scene after scene, keeps pushing the same ponderous “compassionate” argument about the grand lesson of World War I. If you imagine the movie as a one-man show (which Cox would be the perfect actor for), that same argument could have been threaded right through it, with more insight and digression. There are flickers of testy drama in the scenes between Winston and his wife, Clementine, played by Miranda Richardson with snappish fortitude. “Do you want to be coddled, Winston?” she says. “Don’t complain when someone tells you the truth.” She’s got his number — that he has greatness in him, but that he’s also a big baby clinging to the past.
Yet even her tough love isn’t enough. Winston has to keep hearing the lesson, over and over, until he wakes up to it. He hears it from Ike, from Monty, from King George VI (James Purefoy), from his trusted Boer military colleague Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), and even from his worshipful assistant (Ella Purnell), whose fiancée is set to be on the front lines of D-Day. They all understand what Winston doesn’t: that he’s a timeless statesman, but that the time for him to be a warrior has passed. “Churchill” makes a serviceable movie out of the minor drama of that moment.