Of the world leaders that changed the 20th century, Winston Churchill remains a mystery at the movies. While history books celebrate his political savvy and brittle instinct, he has not been the star of a film for several years. And it took the Netflix series The Crown — with John Lithgow’s layered portrayal — to bring this fascinating British leader back into focus.
Now we have the biopic Churchill, a well-intentioned if flawed examination of how Britain’s Prime Minister struggled with Allied plans to invade France in June 1944 at the height of World War II. While the film intends to offer a fresh take on Churchill’s concerns about the D-Day blueprint, it gets caught up in the hero’s dark moments. Not since Oliver Stone dug into Richard Nixon’s psyche in the troubled film Nixon has a filmmaker so celebrated a hero’s ugly side. And Churchill’s director, Jonathan Teplitzky, doesn’t seem to know when to stop.
Like the best of recent bio pics, Churchill confines its narrative to a limited period of time, the days immediately before the planned D-Day launch. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower finalizes the plans for the invasion, Churchill remembers another war when ambitious ideas led to massive injury and death. He remains haunted by the past as he struggles to understand the present and project into the future. As much as he wants to believe in Eisenhower’s expertise, Churchill’s memories make it difficult to understand. So he begins to undermine, object and manipulate his way through a different approach that could achieve a similar outcome. Yes, he wants to win the war. But not this way.
If Teplitzky had limited the film to these military uncertainties, Churchill the movie would better honor Churchill the man. But Teplitzky can’t let well enough alone. He seems determined to prove that the leader’s emotional weaknesses cloud his judgment. It’s as if Teplitzky has so little respect for Churchill the leader that he refuses to imagine how someone so practiced could be so challenged. And the director goes for dramatic thrills to shock rather than meaningful moments to illuminate. We’re left with a portrayal of a man who leads in spite of himself. And lets his emotions paralyze his judgment.
As troubling as Churchill may be in the script, Teplitzky’s approach gives actor Brian Cox a dream job. And he makes the most of every moment. Cox, a reliable supporting player in many movies, reaches beyond the material to make Churchill a living creature. He fills the gaps that writer Alex von Tunzelmann leaves in his screenplay with layers of command and control. Cox makes us believe in the man we remember from history not necessarily the man presented on the pages of the script.
Ultimately, as flawed as Churchill the movie may be, its presence reminds us of the essential role movies can play to bring history to life. As we celebrate the bravery of D-Day, some 73 years later, we thank the people who gave their lives to make us free. That makes Churchill a worthwhile film to see. But it’s not the Churchill we need to remember.
“Film Nutritional Value”: Churchill
- Content: Medium. The story of how a great leader is haunted by his past could paint a fascinating, layered look at a brilliant man. But Churchill resists the layers.
- Entertainment: Medium. While Brian Cox makes the most of the role, and delivers a compelling performance, he could have done so much more with a deeper script.
- Message: Medium. Because the film strays from its focus, the story offers less opportunity to learn about Churchill than we would like. And that he deserves.
- Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to learn more about any historical figure can be worthwhile. But the film could tell us so much more.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your children about a significant moment and person in history.
(Churchill, running 1 hour and 45 minutes, is rated PG for “thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, and some language.” 3 ½ Popcorn Buckets. To read about other films about historical figures, check out The Reel Dad and This Week’s Movie Menu at arts.hersam-acorn.com.)
How bio pics interpret history
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
As Churchill reminds us, larger-than-life people from history can be interesting subjects for motion pictures. And filmmakers occasionally interpret their characters in ways the history books avoid. Here are a few examples of how “biopics” vary in how they approach celebrated figures from the past.
As much as we may think we learned everything about the 16th President in school, Steven Spielberg gives us a lot to think about in this thoughtful epic. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an Oscar-winning performance as a thoughtful man who so believes in the end result he can create that he willingly pursues any possible approach to make it happen. As with Churchill, Spielberg reveals darker sides of the man. But he does so within the context of the President’s bravery and determination.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Director David Lean – fresh from winning an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai – uses a standard biopic approach to explain the elusive T.E. Lawrence, a controversial center of some of many meaningful moments in the evolution of what we now call the Middle East. With Peter O’Toole in a star-making performance, the film won seven Oscars and set a new standard for epic biography on screen. O’Toole’s brave portrayal lets us know that even those leaders haunted by demons can make contributions that last forever.
In World War II, several military leaders created a different world order by daring to think and act differently. Of these, George S. Patton was the most controversial in how he looked at the world, the duty of soldiers, and the potential for world peace. George C. Scott won a well-deserved Oscar for recreating this larger-than-life hero in Franklin Schaffner’s Best Picture of the Year. The film strays from a typical biopic approach to explore the passions that define this General’s view of his role in history. And it stands alone in its depth of thought and interpretation of heroism.
Schindler’s List (1994)
Oscar Schindler, a self-absorbed German businessman, never considered himself a likely hero. But world events can change anyone. And Schindler, though claiming to be without political conviction, found himself in a position to help others. Steven Spielberg reveals how Schindler uses his position as a businessman to protect and ultimately save hundreds of Jews who, otherwise, would face certain death. This portrayal of bravery, even within a framework of financial gain, reveals how people can surprise with the meaningful choices they make.
Pride of the Yankees (1942)
On its surface, this “bio pic” pays tribute to a popular hero, a popular theme in the 1940s. But baseball player Lou Gehrig deserves more. And the film delivers as it explores how he confronts the devastating impact of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the body. Gary Cooper captures the essence of a fighter searching for a solution. And sets the tone for every movie about disease we have seen in the years since. But few do it with as much care and respect.
The King’s Speech (2010)
Today’s media cycle makes it impossible for any leader to hide. But years ago, leaders thought they might could select their degree of exposure. Tom Hooper’s Oscar winner takes us to Great Britain, in the 1930s, when Prince Albert – second in line for the throne – suffers a stammer when he tries to speak. As he learns how to communicate, the soon-to-be king learns how to lead. And he gives his country a lesson in human persistence at a time when they need to be brave. Colin Firth won a well-desereved Oscar, too.