Film review of Churchill

June 25, 2017

This film review of “Churchill” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 15 June 2017.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky; written by Alex von Tunzelmann; starring Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell and James Purefoy

*****

As one of the towering political leaders of the 20th century, Winston Churchill holds a special place in British history, with a political career spanning five decades. His impassioned speeches as Prime Minister during World War II are often credited for having kept much of Britain’s heart and soul together, particularly during the darkest years early in the war.

The new film “Churchill” – by Australian Jewish director Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”), working from a script by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann – may surprise some, because it does not focus on Churchill’s finest hours – of which there were so many. Instead, “Churchill” takes place over a few days in June 1944 leading up to the Normandy “D-Day” Allied landing. According to this film, Winston Churchill actively opposed the landing, promoting instead a southern European action by the Allies. The reason for his opposition? He feared tremendous casualties associated with a direct beach invasion, being haunted by the images of tens of thousands of young British soldiers dying during the first World War, at Gallipoli and elsewhere – when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the British Navy.

Although set at a crucial time during the war, the film feels like it could have been adapted from a play (it wasn’t), with most scenes set inside offices and residences. What the viewer most remembers from “Churchill” is Churchill the Prime Minister (played by iconic Scottish actor Brian Cox) arguing, primarily with Allied generals including Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery, from “Mad Men”), but also with his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson).

Churchill’s staff fear that the stress of leadership means he is losing his grip on reality (Churchill was 69 years old at the time, and still had more than ten years of political life ahead). He abuses underlings and rants and raves, insisting that he must then go in on one of the first boats to the beach.

Given Winston Churchill’s extraordinary political career and his enormous accomplishments as a writer (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953), public speaker, war strategist and protector of British national character, it seems curious – and overly grandiose – to name this small film in a way that implies that it’s a full biography. It certainly is not.

What “Churchill” the film does, however, is to give a platform for two of the greatest acting performances of the year: Brian Cox as Winston and Miranda Richardson as Clementine. The two of them are captivating, in the way that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” showed us that an arguing couple could still be interesting. While John Slattery as Eisenhower is not nearly as well-cast, other characters provide great foils for Brian Cox’s screen power, including Julian Wadham as Field Marshall Montgomery, Richard Durden as South African statesman Jan Smuts, James Purefoy as King George VI (an understated but touching small role) and Ella Purnell as a war room secretary.

(image below: Brian Cox as Winston Churchill)

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film review of Spotlight

February 4, 2016

(This review appeared in The Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 28 January 2016. Click here to view a copy of the Jewish News article.)

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D’Arcy James and Billy Crudup

There are many good reasons to see the new film “Spotlight”, which details the real-life events of how the “Boston Globe” newspaper reported on and “broke” the story of systematic Catholic clergy child abuse. It’s the best film about investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men” dramatised the Watergate scandal. The superb cast – all portraying real-life characters – provides the best ensemble acting of any film in recent memory. And “Spotlight” is set in a time (2001 and 2002, spanning the events of September 11th) and a place (Boston) that grounds the film in a true historical reality, down to the thick and accurate Boston accents, and including a fabulous portrayal of a media world on the cusp of dramatic digital transformation.

“Spotlight” is the name of the “Boston Globe’s” investigative team, a group of fiercely independent journalists. In the middle of 2001, the “Globe” – then owned by the “The New York Times” – received its first editor who had not grown up locally: Marty Baron (played by Liev Schrieber), transferred by “The Times” from the “Miami Herald”, and subsequently named by “Esquire” magazine as the “best news editor of all time”. Baron was also the “Globe’s” first Jewish editor; he encouraged the Spotlight team to tackle the simmering child abuse scandal. With Catholics comprising more than half the paper’s readership – and the Spotlight team all “lapsed” Catholics themselves – it took the outsider, the Jewish guy, to force the issue, against both internal resistance and external opposition.

Baron wasn’t the only outsider on the case. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci) had long represented numerous child abuse victims suing the Church. Garabedian’s character points out that as an Armenian, he is not part of Boston’s Catholic “power elite”, and thus able to challenge the status quo. In Boston, religion matters. A lot.

Although Baron and Garabedian played important roles in uncovering the scandal, the film concentrates on the work of the Spotlight team itself: lead writer Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), team leader Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), and researchers Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), following them through their daily grind and the emotional journeys of slowly uncovering what turned out to be one of the biggest religious scandals in American history. No-one, including this team at first, could believe that the Church had systematically covered up and protected so many abusive priests. The team eventually published 600 stories about the abuse and the team received a Pulitzer Prize.

This is a “close” and intimate film, powerful and fast-paced, with an extraordinary attention to detail by writer/director Tom McCarthy. Not surprisingly, “Spotlight” has received numerous accolades, including six Oscar nominations, for best picture, director, editing, original script and acting for Ruffalo and McAdams. Aside from the realistic Boston settings, the sense of verisimilitude is enhanced by the cast: most of the Catholic characters are played by Catholics and Schrieber is Jewish.

This is another important reason to see “Spotlight”: as one of the most important contemporary dramatic films made about religion, it holds far-reaching significance for Australia. The film concludes with an on-screen listing of 105 American cities and 102 dioceses world-wide where sexual abuse by Catholic priests have come to light: 22 of the international locations are Australian, from Adelaide to Melbourne to Sydney to Wollongong, with many in-between.

“Spotlight” also illustrates a major reason why the Catholic Church refused to take a principled stand against the antisemitic portrayal of Jews by Mel Gibson in his 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ”. According to a Boston priest with extensive interfaith Jewish experience who I interviewed in 2008, the Church’s authority was so weakened by the scandals depicted in “Spotlight” that the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops felt unable or unwilling to risk offending their constituencies by criticising a popular Hollywood film. The result: far greater success for Gibson’s film than it deserved.

Spotlight(photo above: the lead actors of the “Spotlight” team: from left – Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian D’Arcy James