Runtime 125 minutes
The problem that I have with this movie is how much can it be trusted? The question is relevant because the screenwriter is Anthony McCarten, who also wrote the screenplay for The Best of Everything, the story of Stephen Hawking. And that screenplay was less than honest, burying the unhappiness of Hawking’s wife and the brutal way he treated her, no doubt because it cast the story in a much darker venue than he wanted.
So how much can we believe of what McCarten sets forth in this film? It’s the story of Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first few weeks as Prime Minister after Neville “peace in our time” Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) lost his place as PM. Churchill had been a voice crying in the wilderness throughout the ‘30s telling of the dangers of Hitler to deaf ears. According to this film he became PM solely because his party, the Tories (who had refused to include him in the Cabinet in 1936, basically condemning him to live in virtual oblivion from power, even though he remained in the House of Commons) needed the support of the opposition and he was the only candidate who could get that.
No sooner does he take office at age 65 on May 10, 1940 than 400,000 British troops are stranded on the beach at Dunkirk. This movie covers the time between May 10 and June 4. According to the film, he is immediately faced with a revolt by what would today be called “never Churchillers,” led by Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane, in a terrific performance) who was the party’s first choice to replace Chamberlain. They lead what seems to be a majority faction on the cabinet who want to sue for peace by negotiating with Hitler through Mussolini, which is anathema to Churchill who had always been a valiant voice against appeasement.
So Churchill is once again a man fighting against majority thought. The only difference is that here he is the Prime Minister, and has the last word.
However, this is apparently just Hollywood Hogwash to make it appear as if Churchill was a man alone because him according to Michael Korda, in his definitive 2017 book Alone – Britain, Churchill and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory.
Improbable as it seems, Chamberlain was now a full supporter of Churchill: “He offered little support to Halifax; indeed one has the impression that he had hardened within his carapace like certain sea animals. Certainly Hitler was mistaken if he supposed that a full-scale cabinet revolt was brewing – so far it only consisted of one man, battling for Churchill soul, or his own.”
So, unfortunately, you can take the many scenes of Churchill’s appearances with his War Council showing him standing alone against their almost unanimous opposition to fighting on with a grain of salt. Which means, as far as I’m concerned, you may take this entire movie with a grain of salt.
The film shows King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) as being highly influential with Churchill. Who knows whether or not that is true?
It also shows Churchill being undecided about whether or not to sue for peace so he takes a ride in the Underground (alone!) and speaks with ordinary Brits, who tell him to fight, and that leads him to stand alone against his totally opposed War Cabinet. I can find no authority for these scenes of him on the Underground and am 99 percent certain that it’s total Hollywood Baloney, not only for the fact that the War Cabinet was not against him as claimed by the movie, but for the mere absurdity of Winston Churchill riding on the Underground alone and trying to get support from the “people.”
It is also yet another film that shows Churchill as being an out of control sociopath with little or no control over his temper and as being an out and out alcoholic. In fact, Winnie did sip alcohol during the day but it was weak and watered down.
This movie has attracted all the mainstream critics crying for an Oscar for Oldman’s performance. He might get it but I wouldn’t even give him a nomination because I don’t think his performance captures anything of what Winston was really like. For one thing, there’s not a glimpse of his well-known sense of humor. And I don’t think he was an out of control sociopath the way Oldman plays him, and I don’t think that he was a pawn of a Svengali-like wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), either.