Still Not Over the ‘Hill

Another Churchill movie. I’m sensing a theme. Darkest Hour was a recent Oscar winner so the man is on the mind; but he has also made appearances in dramas like The Crown, The King’s Speech, The Gathering Storm, Inglourious Basterds, even Dr. Who. We just can’t get enough of him. And for good reason. Churchill was a famous strategist, a genius wordsmith, and a badmouthing, smoking, raging alcoholic responsible for seeing England through a world war. He had two best friends, the king and his wife, and everyone else was tolerable at best – it wasn’t an era when kissing babies won the popular vote. This is the kind of protagonist who can enthrall a crowd, then and now, and we’re clearly not bored of him yet.

Unlike Darkest Hour, Churchill takes place at the end of the war, not the beginning. The allies are a few days from the Normandy landing and every leader is gung-ho – except for Churchill (Brian Cox). General Eisenhower (John Slattery) is convinced that a forceful attack along the 50-mile stretch of French beach will turn the tide of the war and forge a path to reclaiming Paris. Churchill, however, will not give his blessing, due in part to his experience with beach landings during WWI. But no one is listening. Churchill is a strong Prime Minister and Britain’s voice of hope, but he is not a general. Commanding as he may be, he has limited authority to actually command. Everyone, including his faithful and strong-minded wife, Clemmie (Miranda Richardson), wants Churchill to step aside, shut up, and let the generals make the call. But the Prime Minister can’t live with the possibility that his inaction will cause the deaths of thousands. What’s a powerful, influential, respected, eloquent, experienced Prime Minister to do when no one will hear him?

I would say that Churchill is mostly about a sullen old white guy, but you knew that already. It’s hard not to love our heroes. He drinks like the glass has a hole in it, but at this point, whatever gets him out of bed is worth a damaged liver. England would never have made it so far without this raging alcoholic, so if it takes a couple of drams at 11:00 am to draft the speech that will inspire the nation, then call the whiskey ‘medicine with a wink’ and leave the full bottle on his desk.

Even with liquid courage inspiring great speeches, Churchill’s influence throughout the film gradually fades away. It’s a little sad to see such a powerful figure undermined at every confrontation. Churchill wants to save as many lives as possible while the allied generals want to end the war today. Those two goals don’t always align. All Churchill can do is make some noise and thump his fist on the desk. It’s frustrating to watch. In the present, we know that D-Day was a success, but in 1944, a week before the landing, strategists weren’t so sure. Churchill starts to feel like he’s holding up the world with no power to steer it in the right direction.

Brian Cox plays the sympathy card really well. Even though Churchill is an angry old goat, we feel his burden and understand the weight of his responsibility. At the same time, there are these tender human moments when Churchill realizes that he’s yelling at a person, not a Google Home Mini, and he morphs, instantly, from an angry foghorn into a caring Prime Minister. The common Churchill is an inflexible mountain, but this guy would pull some strings with classified information to put a colleague at ease. Grumbly as he may be, those brief moments let us connect with him as a person instead of the untouchable elite strategist.

This isn’t the strong, sure, lucky Churchill we’ve seen before. There’s doubt and weakness as he tries so hard to change everyone’s mind but can’t give a better reason than, “I had a bad dream about it.” But other than that, this movie doesn’t really offer anything new. Brian Cox plays a convincing cantankerous, insufferable old soldier who can’t shake your hand because it’s holding a cigar. He’s so caring he’s insensitive and so focused he’s occasionally comatose, but you can’t argue with results.

Churchill is a great perspective if you’re looking for beautiful scenery, imagery, stirring music, and a glimpse into the heroic Prime Minister when he started being wrong for a change. The speeches are meticulously crafted while the supporting cast of wife, secretary, and adult babysitter go mostly unappreciated. If we’re comparing, I still think that Darkest Hour takes the cake, but Churchill slides in like a nice epilogue. It’s a 7/10.

“We shall never surrender.”