Into the Storm: Leadership Lessons From Winston Churchill
A new HBO drama deserves close study by our statesmen.
May 31, 2009 - 1:47 am
The film’s most elevating moment is a montage which director Thaddeus O’Sullivan creates out of Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of 1940. In the pubs and clubs, from the factory floors to the Parliament, we see Britain listening. This is Gleeson’s finest hour, capturing the cadences of the great orator, who, let us remember, was his own speechwriter and would likely rip apart a teleprompter with his bare hands if one ever appeared before him.
Churchill was the supreme wartime communicator. Today’s leaders should carefully study the many scenes of Into the Storm devoted to his masterful language skills. Writers appreciate a fellow wordsmith, so screenwriter Whitemore enshrines Churchill’s most ennobling words in scenes where they can be fully appreciated.
Speaking of heroic aviators, Churchill murmurs “never before has been much been owed by so many to so few.” Realizing immediately that he has struck rhetorical gold, he quickly tells an aide “write this down,” and next the reaction of his most important audience member is duly noted. Later, in private, he looks into the burned face of a flier while presenting the Victoria’s Cross and is equally eloquent. Churchill’s mighty words are more impactful than mere scripted catch phrases because they come from deep within, and Into the Storm captures that passion well.
The film’s title phrase is in a speech which is actually booed and heckled in a Parliamentary debate. Sometimes words alone won’t suffice. Wartime Britain is at the end of Empire, barely able to defend itself much less go on the offensive alone. Churchill’s key relationships with FDR and Stalin are crucial to both military success and what exactly will be won. Unfortunately, the tight 100 minute film format leaves some loose threads, such as a too brief glimpse of the Yalta meetings and a hasty glance towards the fate of Poland. The only glaring weakness of Into the Storm is that there’s not enough of it.
For more details on why Churchill had so little leverage negotiating the post-war fate of Poland, see PBS’ recent six hour documentary WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. That film is a stunning (for PBS) denunciation of Stalin, played in recreations by Alexey Petrenko who is also Into the Storm‘s Stalin. The Roosevelt of Into the Storm seems merely disinterested in post-war Europe. WWII Behind Closed Doors has the time to reveal that part of FDR’s proposal for post-war world was “drawn up by Harry Dexter White, a Soviet spy in Washington.” While Into the Storm‘s scope misses some history, it does capture FDR and Stalin in entertaining lighter moments, the former watching Churchill bathe and the latter toasting his manservant.
As Into the Storm concludes, Britain elects Labor. Churchill is out, Clement Atlee is in, on a political platform of “they want a proper welfare state.” Throughout the war, Churchill kept Atlee by his side as a sign of national unity. I guess Sun-tzu and Don Corleone were wrong: don’t always “keep your enemies closer.” There is a great scene of personal redemption which concludes Into the Storm, but the political resolution is unfinished. Producer Ridley Scott says he would like to do a post-war sequel dealing with Churchill’s temperament and his battle against depression. After HBO (and probably Gleeson) collect the awards which Into the Storm richly deserves, they too will want to commission a follow-up and complete the trilogy. History itself suggests the narrative. Atlee’s socialism impoverished Britain, and the voters turned to the Conservatives. In 1951, Winston Churchill returned as prime minister, saving his nation one final time.
Into the Storm premieres tonight on HBO and repeats throughout June.