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From ‘The Crown’ to ‘Darkest Hour,’ Wealth of Churchill Projects Signals Hunger for Leadership

On the big and small screens — from Netflix’s hit series “The Crown” to the upcoming Oscar season entry “Darkest Hour” — Winston Churchill is having a moment. The sheer number of current projects focused on the man who proved to be one of the most stalwart leaders in history is particularly noteworthy given the political unrest and upheaval sweeping the globe.

As the U.K. reels from last summer’s Brexit vote, as France regroups in the wake of an intensely polarized presidential runoff, and as President Trump courts controversy with every new pen stroke and tweet, film and television dramas have found inspiration in the individual who stood up to fascism when no one else would. It’s something actor John Lithgow, who stars as Churchill in “The Crown,” sees as a hunger for nobility in our leadership.

“All these projects were underway long before the storm clouds gathered,” Lithgow says, “but we just seem to be at exactly the right distance from the Churchill moment to ruminate on his history, to look back and see how significant this was and how much you can learn from it.”

Pep Montserrat for Variety

A strong Emmy contender for his performance, Lithgow portrays the portly politician as a man facing his own mortality in the 1950s, losing his viability and fighting for his prime ministership while advising a new monarch.

Also in the Emmy hunt for a latter-day portrayal is Michael Gambon for PBS’ “Churchill’s Secret,” in which he plays the politician suffering the debilitating effects of a stroke while keeping the truth of his condition under wraps.

Meanwhile, Cohen Media Group’s “Churchill,” directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, will debut in theaters June 2. Brian Cox clutches the cane and cigar as a war-weary leader, second-guessing American aggression in the days leading up to the D-Day invasion.

Focus Features’ “Darkest Hour,” bowing Nov. 22, is certain to be an awards contender. Written by “The Theory of Everything” scribe Anthony McCarten, the film will star Gary Oldman as Churchill at his most mythic, facing down Nazi Germany at the brink of war.

And there are other projects still. Churchill figures into the Amazon series “Peaky Blinders” in his days as secretary of state for the colonies just after World War I. His specter will also no doubt be felt over the events of Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” later this summer.

Steven J. Ross, professor of history at the University of Southern California, sees the rush of Churchill-themed stories as a sort of wish-fulfillment.

“This is about getting a strong leader,” he says. “What we’ve seen in the last election is, in a sense, a lack of leadership. There are many people who felt neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump could lead a nation. It was as stark as I’ve seen.”

But a lack of leadership certainly isn’t an American phenomenon, and indeed, these projects aren’t all Hollywood products. Ross points to an ongoing disruption of the global status quo as a culprit in creating “worldwide dislocation and unhappiness.” Just as the transition from feudalism to capitalism created great upheaval, he says, we’ve entered a whole new stage of economic development, with people wondering what is going to happen in the world.

“I’ve been fascinated by his ability to survive the most astonishing things.”
Brian Cox, on Winston Churchill

“The nation-state is being superseded by global capitalism,” Ross says. “You have all these multinationals that are positioning themselves not for the good of their country but for the good of their profits and shareholders. And so who do we look to in a world where war is spreading wider and wider? People still see Churchill as standing up in the darkest hour and being a heroic figure, and they want somebody they can believe in. We want movies that make us feel good.”

McCarten says he had more timeless concerns on his mind when writing the script for “Darkest Hour.” He was focused on presenting a modern Churchill fleshed out for our times, allowing him to be more human and complex. He echoes Ross’ sentiments about looking to the past for models of morally courageous leadership, but he also found in Churchill an example of a leader crucially capable of uncertainty.

“He was a man who knew he’d made grievous mistakes in the past and knew he was quite capable of making them again,” McCarten says. “For me, the ability to doubt, to think that you could be wrong, to pause and for a while, to weigh opposing ideas with an open mind, and only then to synthesize these ideas and reach a decision — that to me is a quality found in all great leaders. As Oliver Cromwell said so wonderfully in 1650, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.’ The ability to have doubts but not be paralyzed by them is a vital strength, not a weakness.”

McCarten wrote “Darkest Hour” on spec, largely because he felt the story of how Churchill made his decision to stand firm and fight for the ideals and freedom of a nation, rather than explore a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany, had never been satisfactorily told.

“Upon this decision the fate of the world literally hung,” McCarten says. “It’s a bigger, scarier, more altogether human story than has previously been allowed.”

Cox, meanwhile, shares a bit of personal history with the famed Briton. Churchill served as a member of Parliament for the actor’s hometown of Dundee, Scotland, from 1908 to 1922. Cox has long been interested in portraying the icon and came close to launching a project 15 years ago that would have focused on the relationship between Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the wake of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

“I was interested in the American relationship and how America got involved in the Second World War,” Cox says. “So I’ve had Churchill in my lexicon for quite some time. I’ve always been fascinated by his sheer ability to survive the most astonishing things that happened to him. He really was a man of destiny, and that’s not something you can say about a lot of people.”

For “Churchill,” that notion of a leader weathering a storm of doubt was Cox’s way into portraying the character. In Teplitzky’s film, Churchill is a man racked with the guilt of previous failures, most notably the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli Campaign. As Dwight D. Eisenhower and company forge ahead on what could be a similarly devastating mission in Normandy, Churchill is haunted by the impact of the Great War, the sort of connection to calamity Cox finds lacking in today’s leaders.

“We forget, these guys in the first part of the 20th century, it was a time of war,” Cox says. “But nobody was insensitive to the palpable body count. I think nowadays, I don’t know what it is — it’s probably something about the digital age — but they haven’t got the same connection. The fact that Obama can sit in a room with Hillary Clinton and watch them take out [Osama bin Laden], there is something cold-blooded and distancing from the experience of the event, of actually seeing the body bags, of feeling the effects, as Churchill did.”

Modern politicians have no sense of that, Cox bemoans. Perhaps that’s another way into understanding the contemporary burst of interest in someone like Winston Churchill.

“Killing has become a thing that is devoid of personality,” Cox says. “When you take personality out, you take vision, and therefore you take the corrective out as well. And when you’ve got someone as deeply insensitive as the present POTUS, you’re going, ‘Well, yeah, maybe it’s time we looked at Churchill again. Let’s look at this man and see what kind of visionary he was.’ Churchill reminds us of principles that seem to have drifted away into some kind of mythology.”

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