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Into the Storm: Leadership Lessons From Winston Churchill

A new HBO drama deserves close study by our statesmen.

by
Jim Kearney

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May 31, 2009 - 1:47 am
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HBO’s Into the Storm, dramatizing Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War II, deserves close study from our statesmen, their spouses, and anyone with questions about the stakes and requirements of warfare. This Churchill, portrayed brilliantly by Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, is an unapologetic conservative, a tenacious dynamo whose rhetoric and resolve protected Britain and the West from submission to tyranny.

We pick up Churchill where HBO’s Emmy-winning 2002 film The Gathering Storm left off. Hitler appeaser Neville Chamberlain has been discredited, and Churchill takes over as prime minister. After the successful retreat of the British Army from Dunkirk, France, Churchill imparts lesson one for today’s leaders: tell the whole truth. Noting the heroics of hundreds of merchant seamen and small craft pilots who helped the Royal Navy save 335,000 from the jaws of death, Churchill reminds Britain that “wars are not won by evacuation.” He refuses to minimize the underlying truth: the Dunkirk retreat came at the end of a colossal military disaster.

Into the Storm covers the years 1940-1945, so the easy approach would be to skim quickly across military turning points and famous speeches, ending with VE day. As perfectly as those events are crystallized here, the commendable screenplay by Hugh Whitemore (The Gathering Storm, Pack of Lies) aims higher. Churchill’s marriage, health, and political standing are severely tested by the ordeal of war. Flash-forwards to a post-war sojourn in France as he and wife Clemmie (Janet McTeer) await election results foreshadow serious consequences.

Clemmie is a pivotal figure in the story, reluctantly but dutifully fulfilling the responsibilities of the supportive, sacrificing woman behind the great man. She is his confidant and his protector, operating behind the scenes to ensure his very survival on more than one occasion. Winston Churchill underestimates the physical and psychological toll the war is taking on him, but Clemmie does not. In the post-war period Clemmie’s political antennae are also more finely tuned than those of her boldly forthright spouse. He sarcastically notes her “lefty” side, so why not listen when she counsels him on that voting bloc?

Churchill’s conservatism is very much in evidence throughout Into the Storm. He rebuffs a diplomatic overture from the Italian ambassador, knowing that in such an occasion talking is a step on the slippery slope to surrender. When socialist political rival Clement Atlee warns that saturation bombing of cities hosting German munitions factories will result in “moral objections” (even after the Germans have pulverized Coventry) Churchill tells him “war is war, Atlee.” Dresden is then destroyed, and a sympathetic British newsreel cooperatively notes that 58,000 war workers have perished. Later, Churchill rails against the welfare state, eagerly advocated by Atlee. While not religiously motivated, Churchill cautions against publicly discounting belief, saying “it is a wicked thing to take away men’s hope.” His is a militarily muscular conservatism, one where brain masters brawn, and where logic points to sacrifice and courage as his nation’s ultimate strength.

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