We’re awash in Churchills right now in pop culture. There’s John Lithgow scowling away on Netflix’s “The Crown,” and later this month Gary Oldman will pile on the prosthetics in “Darkest Hour.”
But if there’s an actor who seems most suited to play the gruff but charismatic bulldog, called the greatest Briton of the 20th century, it would be Brian Cox. And he wouldn’t even need much makeup or prosthetics, having arrived to the set pre-jowled.
So it’s baffling, almost angering, that the movie “Churchill” so completely wastes Cox’s performance as Churchill. Cox’s performance is just fine in the movie (out now on DVD from Cohen Media Group). But the movie itself is so incredibly misguided, so willfully ignorant of the history both as it was and as the audience perceives it to be. It fails as drama because it fails at history.
The movie is structured as a “ticking-clock” thriller counting down the last 24 hours before the launch of Operation Overlord on D-Day. Churchill, after having misgivings earlier in the war about the plan to storm the beaches, was one of the chief architects of the plan.
But “Churchill,” incredibly, presents him as dead set against the plan, fearful that the invasion will lead to massive Allied casualties. The film even gives him a tidy psychological reason for his worry – he’s haunted by the memory of the dead at Gallipoli during World War I.
So Churchill rails against General Eisenhower (a spectacularly miscast John Slattery of “Mad Men”) against the plan, even kneels by his bedside and prays for bad weather to scuttle the mission. In a truly bizarre scene, he tries to convince King George VI (James Purefoy, actually pretty good) to get on a boat and join the invasion themselves.
Let’s be clear – none of this happened. It’s inexcusable to present it as if it did. “Churchill” feels like some bizarre hit piece on Churchill, like one of those right-wing propaganda films against the Clintons. Churchill is presented as a doddering, pathetic figure that even his wife (Miranda Richardson) looks upon with disgust.
It’s such a major misstep because, in addition to being wrong, it puts Churchill on the wrong side of the narrative. We know Operation Overlord will be the decisive turning point in World War II, so why is our hero a man wrongly opposed to it? It’s like watching a version of “Selma” in which a panicked Martin Luther King, Jr. tries to call off the march.
I’m certainly not opposed to revisionist drama that presents the real man behind the legend. But give us the real man.