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Riding the wartime whirlwind

TELEVISION CRITIC

It’s difficult to imagine a braver or more ambitious project than “Into the Storm,” which premieres on HBO Sunday night. To tell the story of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the years of World War II and the months that followed is enough to freeze a screenwriter’s heart. Add to that the task of living up to its predecessor, “The Gathering Storm,” which starred Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave and -- well, you see where the bravery comes in.

While “The Gathering Storm” portrayed Churchill struggling to stay solvent, influential and married, “Into the Storm” shows him at the height of his powers. It’s hard to beat Finney, but Brendan Gleeson (last seen as one of “In Bruges’ ” lovable hit men) does his level best, setting his jaw in that signature grimace of confidence, making sweeping decisions without pause and delivering speech after speech designed to keep spines straight and hearts bold all over the little island he loved so well.

While Gleeson pours himself into that iconic voice (at times a bit unintelligible to the American ear), the strength of his Churchill radiates from the eyes, which in private moments shine darkly with sorrow, doubt and occasionally fear. The same man who promptly rejects the suggestion that Britain negotiate with Mussolini and Hitler with the words “nations that go down fighting, rise up again; those that surrender tamely are finished,” holds in his mind not the pillars of power but the image of a man who once wished him luck.

“A middle-aged man, a shopkeeper, perhaps, a bus driver, full of hope and trust. . . . I mustn’t let him down,” he tells his wife, Clementine (Janet McTeer). “You won’t,” she says. “I might,” he answers with breathless matter-of-factness.

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Both Gleeson and Churchill find their match in McTeer’s Clementine. McTeer is a wonderful actress, capable of playing a cynical police sergeant (“Five Days”) or a mesmerizing Mrs. Dashwood (“Sense and Sensibility”). Here she evokes the very essence of duty, while still looking fabulous and preventing her husband’s many flaws from consuming his brilliance.

Their moments together provide the necessary but still astonishing reminders that Churchill, and all the others who orchestrated the Allied victory, were mortal men, not historical figures.

Coming in at less than two hours, “Into the Storm” is forced to take a sort of “greatest hits” approach to the war. One minute Neville Chamberlain is resigning, the next those intrepid fishing boats are headed to Dunkirk, then we flash forward to the Churchills in France as they wait for the results of the postwar election.

Although the time frames can be a bit confusing, writer Hugh Whitemore (who also wrote “The Gathering Storm”) and director Thaddeus O’Sullivan keep our eyes firmly on Churchill as his strengths are almost perfectly mirrored by his flaws.

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An unshakable faith in destiny keeps him stalwart while telling King George VI that a German invasion is to be expected, while hearing himself compared to Hitler by members of Parliament, while courting an evasive Franklin Roosevelt (Len Cariou).

But that same faith, hardened by the years of war, made his transition to peacetime leader difficult. The tyranny of greatness can become simple tyranny when the enemy has been defeated. This Churchill is lost without his war and fears that all he fought for -- the England of his youth and possibly his dreams -- will fall to internal change, his victory notwithstanding. When he is voted out of office mere months after winning what seemed an impossible-to-win war, his anger threatens to overtake his accomplishments and ruin his marriage.

If “Into the Storm” is, at times, overly simplistic (and the ending pure Hollywood), the issues it raises about the nature and cost of great leadership, about the unpredictable nature of war, are not.

Churchill’s exhortations to hold hard and fight to the death are seen, with the luxury of hindsight, as torches lit to lead his people to inevitable victory. But as “Into the Storm” makes clear, victory was far from assured; Churchill’s words and actions could just as easily have been a nation’s eulogy. Which is something worth remembering.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘Into the Storm’

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Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: Unrated


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