The Churchill-in-a-box kit

Brian Cox as Sir Winston Churchill in  Churchill

Brian Cox as Sir Winston Churchill in Churchill

My wife, who has shepherded eighth graders through more than her share of national parks and historical sites, jokes that someone, somewhere sells "historical-site-in-a-box" kits. Lower end state parks, with only enough funding for the cheap package, get split-rail fences, a cannon or two, and maybe a trail. The pricier kits come with cornhusk doll making and musket demonstrations, and perhaps a reconstructed building or two. The gold package includes a whole fort, and the platinum package comes with year-round reenactors and specialty items like period ships (she's been to Jamestown in the summer one too many times).

I joke about a simliar concept I call "Abe Lincoln's beard." I noticed some years ago that commercials, when they need an Abraham Lincoln, can grab virtually any tall, skinny, and/or old guy—regardless of appearance as long as he fits these criteria—put a beard and a stovepipe hat on him, and they have a Lincoln. (I call as witnesses Honda, Diet Mountain Dew, Apples to Apples, and whatever this insomnia drug was.) I think one of the reasons Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Lincoln was so astonishing was because he turned this cardboard cutout into a fully realized human being.

Which brings me to Churchill.

Churchill is 2017's other Winston Churchill movie. It stars the great Brian Cox as Churchill, with Miranda Richardson as Clemmie and John Slattery (Mad Men's Roger Sterling) as Dwight Eisenhower. It's a disaster. It certainly suffers in comparison to the superbly acted and cinematic Darkest Hour, but even if the latter had never come out, Churchill would stand as a bad historical film.

Brian Cox as Churchill and Danny Webb as Field Marshal Alan Brooke in  Churchill

Brian Cox as Churchill and Danny Webb as Field Marshal Alan Brooke in Churchill

I want to say, first off, that Brian Cox is not the problem. I actually felt bad for him; he's a magnificent actor and he's acting his heart out, putting his all into this performance, but he's been given nothing by the script, which is repetitive, cliched, and riddled with serious historical problems. (Andrew Roberts, so persnickety in his Dunkirk review, is on target about Churchill.) Cox elevates what would have been an otherwise unwatchable movie, and for that he deserves credit.

The movie is miscast (John Slattery is too elegant and charismatic a figure to play Eisenhower, an unprepossessing, nose to the grindstone administrator), supremely careless (a 50-star US flag gets a long closeup), and obviously cheap (when General Bernard Montgomery gives as speech to his "army," about twenty men shuffle over and try to look like a larger crowd). There's nothing wrong with low budget films—there have been plenty of great ones—but this film is not artful enough to conceal that or make up for its constraints with an interesting and energetic story. 

The biggest problem is the script. This is a film trying desperately, but in vain, to humanize a heroic figure by showing him in a moment of darkness and failure. Unfortunately, as Roberts notes in the detailed takedown linked above, it sets out to do this through distortion and invention, and the writer's inventions are cliches of the worst variety. Churchill and Clemmie have the following exchange:

Clemmie [sulking over Churchill's neglect of her]: General Eisenhower writes his wife long letters every weekend.
Churchill: Well then why don't you marry General Eisenhower?

Churchill had many faults, but slinging middle school comebacks wasn't among them.

So what are we left with, if the Churchill of Churchill is not the real thing? The film tries repeatedly to sell us on the authenticity of its portrait of the man through soft-focus, backlit closeups of whisky glasses, watch chains, cigars, and so forth, but all we're really getting is a collection of things meant to signal Look! This is Winston Churchill. It's an Abe Lincoln's beard of Churchill. A Churchill-in-a-box kit.

I went in with an open mind, wanting, if anything, to see a fine performance by Cox. I'm glad to say he did his best with what was given him—he's a professional—but it wasn't enough to save the movie. Otherwise I had to entertain myself, through this film's interminable 90 minutes, by filling out the contents of the Churchill-in-a-box kit for any aspiring filmmakers who want the trappings but not the spirit of the man. 

Each Churchill-in-a-box kit contains:

Black three-piece suit with bowtie
Endless cigars
Gold watch chain
Introduction in bed or in bathtub (with bathrobe, or perhaps "a state of nature")
Scotch, champagne, etc.
Poor posture in the backseat of a limousine
Gruff speech
Churchill losing his temper
Churchill being wrong about something (India, Ireland, Gallipoli, etc.)
Churchill being right about something else (Hitler)
Churchill quoting the classics
Churchill saying something surprisingly off-color
Churchill being rude to a secretary
Clemmie telling the secretary what a beast he can be and making him apologize

You get the idea. Churchill is an unfortunate object lesson: characters are more than traits, especially real, important historical figures with easily recognizable ("iconic") traits. Darkest Hour understood this; Churchill did not. And that's too bad.