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Into the Storm
Into the Storm is HBO's follow-up to the award-winning story of Churchill's years of political exile, The Gathering Storm (2002). The previous film took us right up to the brink of World War II, when Churchill first became Prime Minister. Into the Storm picks up afterward, chronicling the key decisions Churchill made during the war, and the election he lost in the war's immediate aftermath. Like the first film, it focuses more on Churchill's challenges than on his successes. Presuming that those have already been sufficiently documented across a variety of media, Into the Storm looks into the nooks and crannies of Churchill's more difficult moments and finds some interesting clues to his character.
The film opens on the image of Churchill (played by the always-impressive Brendan Gleeson, replacing Albert Finney from The Gathering Storm) swimming at a French beach not long after V-E Day. He floats alone amid the breakers, an image of loneliness that suggests Churchill's unique place in history - among world leaders, only Churchill vowed from the beginning to fight Hitler to the end. Now, in mid-1945, the war has ended and Churchill finds himself victorious, with a depleted, bankrupt country on his hands - and with no particular plan to rebuild the nation. During wartime, Churchill led a coalition government, and Labour Party leader Clement Attlee (Bill Paterson) served as his Deputy Prime Minister. With the war over and the country's economy decimated, Britons cried out for a welfare state, which ran counter to Conservative principles. So, even in the wake of victory, Churchill anticipated a defeat in the forthcoming election.
From here, we are taken through a series of flashbacks, most of which are dedicated to moments during the war when Churchill was called upon to make one momentous decision or another. The evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, for example, or negotiating with Stalin at the Yalta Conference; writing and rehearsing his well-known speeches; conferring with King George VI, with whom he developed a friendship of unusual depth for a prime minister and monarch; meeting FDR for the first time, during which a dropped bath towel revealed all Churchill's "secrets" to the president. These are a few of the important episodes covered in this short but lively film.
In the background of all this is Churchill's relationship with his bright, stoic wife Clemmie (Janet McTeer). Although she remains a source of indefatigable support, assisting Winston with his speeches and such, Clemmie also kept him humble, reminding him who he really worked for.
Gleeson's wonderful performance maintains the focus of the informed screenplay by Hugh Whitemore (writer of The Gathering Storm): it emphasizes that Churchill was a principled man, guided by a simple, strong determination and a love for his country. Although he was a highly intelligent man, a great wit, and a brilliant military tactician, he was first and foremost an Englishman and ultimately that drove every other consideration.
This 98-minute movie covers about six years in Churchill's life - and they were defining ones at that. Churchill helped change (and save) the world. So it's too bad that the picture wasn't given more breathing room. It could have easily been a three-hour feature. As is, the movie absolutely flies by, jumping from one crucial moment to another. For all its compressed length, however, the film manages to convey Churchill as a character, a human being, rather than a towering historical demi-god. Gleeson brings a down-to-earth grubbiness to the man that helps us connect; Churchill was a great intellect as well as a sloppy grouch, and those aspects are presented in realistic balance.
The enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is excellent. This is brand-new material, and it looks that way. This well-lit and smartly photographed film boasts strong contrast and occasional bursts of color amid the generally grayish wartime production design.
The 5.1 surround track is surprisingly active, even during quieter scenes. A brief scene of the Blitz is especially atmospheric. Overall, the track is well-separated and utilizes a wider soundstage than normally found on TV productions.
These are, unfortunately, quite slim. The commentary track by producer Frank Doelger and lead actor Gleeson is pretty engaging and informative. There is also a seven-minute behind the scenes featurette.
Into the Storm is a compelling historical drama that maintains a character-driven approach, looking at Churchill's behavior, decision-making, speech-writing, and leadership from ground level. The sharp screenplay and a brilliant turn by Brendan Gleeson make this a memorable look at one of the twentieth century's key figures. Highly recommended.