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Into the Storm: Leadership Lessons From Winston Churchill

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.

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.