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I'm tempted to put a check mark in the spoilers' box because I suspect the outcome of this historical tale will be news to many Americans, especially the young ones, a substantial percentage of whom believe that World War II teamed up America and Germany in a war against the USSR. One in five of us can't name the country we achieved our independence from. (Wrong answers on that 2011 poll included Mexico and China.) And here we have the story of a man named Winston Churchill (Burton), entangled in a tar baby of crucial decisions involving countries and parts of countries (eg., the Sudetenland) that nobody has ever heard of.
Yes, I think this will be news to many people. If that's the case, it might better have been presented as a documentary with a narration and lots and lots of colorful maps with moving arrows and other glitzy graphics. "Poland? You mean as in Poland Springs Water?" It's unfair to the unknowing to hear Churchill making a brief, one- or two-sentence description of Norway being a passageway for Sweden's steel shipments to Germany, and a cut to Churchill's wife (McKenna) holding a newspaper whose lead says something about an attack on Norway. I just don't know how many of us are ready to make that cognitive leap.
As Churchill, Burton does a pretty good job of imitating Churchill's public voice, although when he becomes angry he brays. He gives us a gruff Churchill, whose only humor is expressed through sarcastic insults toward his fellow pols, the foreign office, and Herr Hitler.
The Germans are no more than stereotypes. Von Ribbentrop (Hardy) is one of those smilers with a knife. I'm afraid Ian Bannen -- a fine, innovative actor -- is lost in the role of Hitler. He looks and sounds like Ian Bannen with a mustache and a funny haircut. Neville Chamberlain is played as a weakling and a fool by Bailey, although Churchill gets to mouth some sensible words in his defense.
Nobody ever claimed that Neville Chamberlain was a tower of strength and resolve, but I've always thought he got a bad rap on Munich. He came home with a treat signed by Herr Hitler promising that no more territory would be bothered by the Nazis, which is exactly what the wary British people wanted. What else could he have done? Would he have prevented World War II by declaring war on the spot? Chamberlain's humiliation when he's replaced as PM is very moving.
In the final scene, Churchill delivers his stirring speech about "blood, toil, tears, and sweat", and it's very effective because Burton has a greater capacity for bombast than Churchill, even though Burton was drunk and Churchill was a politician. Churchill, as much as anything else, was a fine writer and speaker, precise and articulate, and this film captures those qualities well.
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