In my defense, I haven’t seen the original 2002 movie The Gathering Storm, to which this movie serves as a sequel – but I think the movie (as a historical piece) stands very well on its own two feet. Besides, aside from the producers (the brothers Scott, obviously attempting to follow Spielberg into the World War II market) and writer (Hugh Whitemore), the series has little in common with its illustrious predecessor. The director is new. The roles have been recast. If it weren’t for the linking theme of the word ‘Storm’ in the title and the fact that this movie picks up where the other left off (at least chronologically), there would be nothing to really tie it down. So, with the confession that I have not seen the original made-for-TV movie, what did I think of Into The Storm?
Winston Churchill is a very interesting figure, as historical figures go. The movie is right to hit repeatedly on the idea that Churchill may have been a man out of time, perfectly equipt for the moral and society simplicity of warfare, but not ready for the quiet revolution that would follow in peace time. The movie offers us glimpses of his post-war holiday in France (awaiting the results of the general election) while flashing back to the chaos of the war (the narrative begins the moment he assumes the post of Prime Minister). The audience is never in doubt about where he feels more comfortable.
Simply put, Churchill isn’t a politician (one of the reasons he manages to dissolve the British part system during the war, but can’t win an election after saving Europe). When Lord Hallifax proposes a pragmatic negotiation between a beseiged Britain and the Axis Powers, Churchill shoots him down with talk of ‘honour’ and ‘duty’, romanticised notions he appears to have derived from history (and, admittedly, his part in history). The Prime Minister isn’t afraid of change, he simply can’t understand it. He can’t comprehend why describing his partners in government as socialists who would establish a ‘gestapo’ would alienate working-class voters, so locked in is he to the British class structure (at one point he assumes that a servant doesn’t mind being yelled at because “he is a servant”).
In fairness, the series does somewhat justify Churchill’s almost classical world-view. In particular we get a scene between Churchill and the more pragmatic Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Yalta, where Churchill suggests opposing the surrendering of Poland to Russia – after all, Britain went to war to assure Poland’s independence, right? Any student of world history (even in the most passive sense) can acknowledge that Churchill’s fears and mistrust were at least in someway reasonable. It’s not fair to discuss what might have been, but the abandoning of Poland was one of the key factors in Russia’s division of Europe in the years that would follow.
The movie is more than capable biography of a key historical figure. It saves itself a lot of hassle by sacrificing story for mood. To present an overarching narrative would not only be redundant (we should all know that there was a Second World War), but cumbersome. The movie breezes by at an hour-and-a-half mainly because it serves as a series of interesting incidents in the life of the British Prime Minister. There are big events (the discussion of Dunkirk) and smaller events (Churchill admitting he is humbled to stand in the presence of an officer who has been awarded the Victoria Cross), and which combine to offer some sort of mosaic view of his role in the war and its aftermath. The mosaic pattern isn’t always clear (it’s difficult to weave too many themes into something that actually happened), but it’s consistently entertaining, at least.
There’s a reason for non-history-buff-people to see the movie too though. Brendan Gleeson deservedly scooped up an Emmy for his portrayal of the leader of the island fortress. The make-up is good (for the vast majority of the film, anyway), but it’s Gleeson who actually manages to convince the viewer that they are watching Churchill rather than just a big-name actor playing Churchill. His furroughed brow, hir stiff lower lip and his staid and uppity accent are just part of the charm. Most of all Gleeson succeeds at convincing you that you are watching a young child trapped in an old man’s body. His Churchill may have saved the free world, but he is also insufferable when chatting through movie screenings, or causing a fuss over watercolour paints. In a way his wife may be right when she suggests that he is a boy still playing with his toy soldiers. Not in that he doesn’t respect the lives he is sworn to protect, but that the making of war is something he has been practicing his whole life. It’s to Gleeson’s credit that we don’t find such a notion crude or insulting – Gleeson presents us with a warts and all (and I really mean all, at least in his scenes with Roosevelt) version of the world leader, but we lose no respect or awe for him for seeing his foibles.
Gleeson is reasonably supported by a perfectly adequate cast. Len Cariou is a passable Roosevelt, but – given the caliber of small-screen Roosevelts which we have had – he doesn’t really stand out. He’s a solid supporting actor and does the best he can in a limitted role, but he never jumps out as a character. Iain Glen is reliable as one of the few pleasant depictions of the monarchy which we’ve seen in the past few years. The movie makes it clear that King George is as close to a personal friend as Churchill had, despite the fact that their relationship was strictly formal.
The movie as a whole is okay. In fairness, it can’t really hide the fact that it was produced on a shoe-string budget. The sets and costumes look fabulous (and the music deserved its Emmy win), but only so much of the budget can be spared by deploying stock footage to cover the D-Day landings or the Battle of Britain. The film does keep itself in check for most of it’s runtime, and the performances are what are really interesting here, but there is one particularly terrible example of the movie failing to work within it’s own budget: when Churchill visit’s an RAF base in a field, we are treated to the sight of the squadron going into battle. All two of them in a clumsily choreographed scene which is clearly designed to make us think Churchill is watching a swarm of jets, even though it’s the same two over-and-over again. It’s a small complaint, but it’s hard not to smile when Churchill follows up this scene with the “never … has so much been owed by so many to so few” line; those two jets obviously did a hell of a lot.
These are small complaints. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s Churchill during the Second World War for people who don’t want to spend a year reading Churchill’s The Second World War (though I’d recommend that text for a holistic overview of events). It features a fantastic leading performance from an unsung hero of the screen (both big and small), so there’s reason for anybody with an interest in Brendan Gleeson or good performances in general to check it out.