‘Churchill’ humanizes iconic figure: An interview with director Jonathan Teplitzky and writer Alex von Tunzelmann

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Winston Churchill has undergone a recent surge in popularity. From John Lithgow’s award-winning performance in Netflix’s “The Crown” to Gary Oldman’s much-awaited portrayal in the upcoming “Darkest Hour,” depictions of the renowned British prime minister in television and film have revived his historical legacies and relevance in 20th-century global politics.

“Churchill,” the most recent of these cultural accounts, examines the prime minister at a momentous time in his governance — the days leading up to D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France. Together, historian and writer Alex von Tunzelmann and director Jonathan Teplitzky have crafted an intimate study of Churchill’s thoughts and actions juxtaposed with larger political tensions, infusing the film and its subject with humanity, warmth and curiosity.

The film follows Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) as he contemplates his pending decision to carry out the British army’s participation in the invasion. Drained and discouraged by the long war, he is mortified by the operation’s possible failure and its implications for his own legacy. By consulting other leaders in the Allied mission, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), and finding emotional support in his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), Churchill grapples with the moral obligation to prohibit his men from dying in vain.

According to Teplitzky, the decision to bring Churchill back to the big screen is especially appropriate in the current global political climate. “All over the Western world really, there’s a big question in people’s minds: Do we have the right leaders? Are they good enough?” he said. Teplitzky attributes Churchill’s cultural resurgence to our tendency to remember leaders of the past with great fondness.

But the film reaches beyond Churchill’s leadership to explore his personal struggles. “The aspect that I found so interesting was much more to do with this kind of self portrait and the picture of the aspects of his depression which he wrote about himself. He called (his depression) ‘black dog’ and I thought that was something very relevant for people today,” von Tunzelmann said. “It’s an amazing thing to think that somebody as great as Churchill fought with that.”

Teplitzky argues that illustrating Churchill’s battle with depression doesn’t just humanize him, but makes his achievements all the more significant. “It also takes away some of the myth of some of these great leaders being perfect,” he said.

“Churchill” emphasizes how much was on the line for Great Britain in the time approaching D-Day. After the June 6 Normandy landings, the summerlong Battle of Normandy led to the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany and D-Day has since famously been called “the beginning of the end” of World War II. As Teplitzky explained, “The very clear purpose was to get rid of the Nazis, to get rid of Hitler. But it was still a huge part of Churchill’s job to give people an understanding, a sense of closing, a sense that anyone that died, they didn’t die in vain.”

It’s impossible to discuss historical drama without bringing up the responsibility of maintaining an accurate account — an issue that von Tunzelmann has plenty of experience with. In her column for the Guardian, “Reel History,” she regularly reviews historical films and gives them different grades for accuracy and entertainment.

Von Tunzelmann acknowledged this discrepancy while writing the film. “This was an image of Churchill that was pretty much based on years and years of reading about him,” she explained. Still, because of her responsibility to construct an engaging screenplay, there were minor aspects of the historical detail that needed to be changed to make the film’s narrative more exciting.

But von Tunzelmann anticipates that the film’s personal narrative will prompt audiences to seek out the facts. “I very much hope that people will be inspired to learn more — that’s the goal,” she said.

While the film’s focus on such a short timespan allows it to explore a commendable depth to Churchill’s character, it still generates a sense of curiosity. It provides just one angle on D-Day, and only covers one of Churchill’s many crucial decisions — it leaves audiences to fill in the gaps and build a more complete historical narrative. “I think one of the stronger elements of the film is that it’s giving the audience a ring-sized sentence, not just the events that Churchill went through,” Teplitzky noted. To him, engaging audiences with bite-sized snippets rather than a series of major events is important, both historically and dramatically.

With “Churchill,” von Tunzelmann and Teplitzky don’t merely settle for telling another historical drama — they present viewers with a complete, flawed human being, one whose controversial but massive influence carries on to this day.

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected].