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Churchill

As one of the singular personages of the 20th Century, Winston Churchill— especially after his death in 1965—has been appropriately featured in popular entertainment. As master politician and statesman, as noted orator and author, as wartime hero and worldly sage—as a generally outsized figure--Winnie was a natural to be depicted in film and television shows on recent British history.

A number of the greats of English acting have recently portrayed Churchill, such as Albert Finney (HBO’s “The Gathering Storm”), Brendan Gleeson (HBO’s “Into the Storm”), Timothy Spall (“The King’s Speech”), and Michael Gambon (“Churchill’s Secret”). Even Americans have gotten into the act (he was, after all, half American on his mother’s side) with John Lithgow’s towering performance in Netflix’s “The Crown” last year. Now we have a new entry in the Churchill sweepstakes: Scotsman Brian Cox in “Churchill”

Most Churchillian appearances in TV and film have highlighted crucial periods in his later life, as does the new “Churchill,” written by Alex von Tunzelmann and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”). The difference here is that it focuses pointedly on just 96 hours in the run-up to the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. The drama comes in Churchill’s newfound skepticism about Operation Overlord—as the action was code-named—and his contesting it with the Allied commanders, Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Field Marshall Montgomery (Julian Wadham). The military men, having planned the immense operation for months, want to launch as soon as the weather allows, while Churchill, harboring vivid memories of World War I misadventures, is reluctant to commit tens of thousands of “our boys” to another potential slaughter (visions of Gallipoli in 1915 seize his mind).

The four-day squabble between these men forms the heady drama, the arguments mitigated somewhat by the reasoned advice of Field Marshall Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) as Winston’s adjutant, and the levelheaded calm of Clementine Churchill (Miranda Richardson) who knows the great man’s moods better than anyone. The tension is heightened by Churchill’s errant behavior, compounded of too much Scotch, a seriously depressive personality, and the flooding war memories. How much of what the prime minister actually went through in those four days is not exactly known, but it makes for a tense, tick-tock movie.

So how does Cox do as Churchill? Aptly, the actor (born 1946) is almost the exact age Churchill was at the time. His has the right girth (though shorter). His face is harsher than Churchill’s round, Teddy-bear appearance, and his voice carries the right tone of sadness and menace, though without Winston’s dramatic, rolling baritone. To give the man some gravitas and stature, Teplitzky often shoots Cox from below, with bowler, cigar, and scowl, nicely suggesting Churchill if not mirroring him. In sum, Cox carries off the impersonation well, offering a good range of the man’s moods and mannerism.

Richardson is very fine as wife “Clemmie.” You get the patience and tough love she exhibited to regulate her fury of a husband, especially at this watershed moment. Her chastening of him, balanced with her careful encouragement, is delicately portrayed; she realizes that he needed her to counterpoise his almost demonic personality.

Much less successful is the sadly miscast John Slattery as Ike. Slattery, well remembered from “Mad Men” on television, essentially repeats his demeanor on that show: fast-talking, sarcastic, and brusque, totally at odds with the real Eisenhower, who was deliberate, even halting in speech, but with a warm timbre. Moreover, there is almost no resemblance, except perhaps for his army cap. It’s no matter, the picture is Cox’s to succeed or fail. He mainly succeeds.

(“Churchill” is rated PG and runs 98 mins.).
(May 2017)

Photo Credit: Brian Cox stars as “Churchill” in the film of same name. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
Obit

A movie about obituary writers? What could be of less interest... Hold your
horses, because “Obit.” is a fascinating look into one of the essential bastions of
journalism as it is practiced in The New York Times. In defining their work, one writer claims that obituaries “have almost nothing to do with death, but everything to do with life.” Another one of the obit writers paraphrases that thought early in the picture, saying that the death of a notable person involves about a paragraph of information in an obituary; 90 percent of what the article contains is the celebration of a person’s life, usually a positive narrative that defines that person.

The documentary film, compiled most effectively by director Vanessa Gould,
follows ten or more members of the obit staff (the largest in newspapers), beginning with one of the best, Bruce Weber, as he commences his research, as they all do, by talking respectfully with 
the family of the deceased
to get the details right. Weber’s search, in fact--on a once prominent government official--becomes a leitmotif for the film as he takes all day to craft a personal story and makes his deadline.

Other veteran Times figures prominently featured are writers William McDonald,
head of the unit, Margalit Fox, and William Grimes, as well as the seen-it-all Jeff Roth, the archives clerk, keeper of the paper’s massive morgue. All of the writers interviewed are articulate and even philosophical about their work, confirming that you should be of a “certain” age with certain life experiences to really craft the arc of an obituary, i.e., you have to have lived a life to define another’s, especially in the typical 500 words.

Many of the stories of individual obits are intriguing or surprising. Such as the
rush to capture overnight a meaningful narrative of an event-filled life when a popular celebrity dies suddenly, such as Michael Jackson or Robin Williams. In such cases, the paper’s archives surely serve, but it is finally the writer who must make an expansive life cohere. One story described is also singular: a prominent aviatrix of the 1920’s was last written about in the Times in 1933, and, when she died unknown in this century, the obit writer had to go back to the morgue and that 1933 column to fashion a story of a woman whose singular achievement happened many decades earlier.

“Obit.” makes a trilogy of fine New York Times documentaries along with
“Wordplay” from 2006 and “Page One” from 2011. It is a fine addition to that line.

(The film is unrated and runs 95 mins.)
(November 2017)

Photo Credit:
Times obituary writer Bruce Weber appears in "Obit." Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.