Their Finest Two Hours

Where are the great TV docudramas of yore?

Winston Churchill once upbraided his valet. “You were very rude to me,” Churchill scolded. “You were very rude to me, sir,” came the reply. “Yes,” Churchill answered. “But I am a great man.” Countless biographies relay that well-worn anecdote. What they don’t report, though, is that the servant muttered, after Churchill stalked out, “You’re a stupid bugger.” That fictional “what I wish I’d said” moment appears in The Gathering Storm, a new film airing on HBO (click here for air times).

Churchill (Albert Finney) dreams of his ancestor Lord Marlborough I’m a sucker for miniepics that sum up a great leader or a movement in two hours. History, of course, offers much material for compelling drama. More often, though, TV docudramas offer the sheer fun of watching actors ham it up, flaunting familiar mannerisms in oft-imagined backstage settings. When I was growing up, in the 1970s, they helped hook me (and many others) on current events and history. As it happens, The Gathering Storm is excellent—intelligent, well-paced, and subtly acted. At its start, Churchill, 60, is in political exile, broke, near retirement, filling his days drinking, painting, yelling at the help, and writing a monumental biography of his ancestor Lord Marlborough. As he begins to warn against Hitler and German rearmament, he is shunned by his own Tory government. He builds a network of spies within the bureaucracy, whistle-blowers who pass him classified information for his articles and speeches. As he indicts Britain’s leaders, he is spurned and mocked until it is almost too late. With war declared, he is recalled to service as first lord of the admiralty. The fleet is signaled: “Winston is Back.” World War II has begun: a happy ending!

The Churchills lost in patriotic reverie Vanessa Redgrave is tough, devoted, and wise as Clementine Churchill. Albert Finney’s Churchill, a growling eccentric, veers toward caricature, but probably that would have been true had the actual Churchill played the role. (With his shining bald head and plutocratic 1930s garb, Finney evokes his portrayal of Daddy Warbucks in Annie. Fortunately, no lovable urchins appeared.) There is a merciful absence of the explanatory speeches by which docudrama characters cram 10 years of remedial history into a purportedly offhand paragraph. (“President Lincoln, now that you have won the Civil War, you have to deal with the issue of reconstruction, how the rebellious states will be reincorporated into the union.” “Yes, that’s right, Gen. Grant.” “Well, time to go the theater.”)

Churchill and Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent) strategize The program is not entirely free from docudrama kitsch. Churchill spends a good deal of time mooning over Clementine during a trip she took to the Far East, during which she apparently fell in love with a shipmate. Much of the film is given over to the intense relationship between Churchill and one of his secret sources, Ralph Wigram of the Foreign Office. Wigram grew despondent about the coming war and committed suicide. Churchill’s attitude toward him was, in fact, much less appealing than in this somewhat avuncular portrayal. In his own volume, The Gathering Storm, mentions of Wigram are brief and even cruel (“He took it too much to heart”). The Wigram saga was a natural subject, but by focusing almost exclusively on him, the film actually omits too much. Munich is not mentioned. Remarkably, Neville Chamberlain never appears on-screen. The cravenness of the British establishment is minimized: I heard no mention of the fact that Churchill was banned from the BBC for fear it would offend Hitler. (The BBC co-produced this film.)

But The Gathering Storm’s greatest mystery is why it was shown on HBO and not one of the broadcast networks. There was a time when docudramas were a staple of prime-time. Roots, after all, was a pioneer of the genre and representative of its often high quality. The Missiles of October portrayed the Cuban Missile Crisis with more tense drama than did 13 Days (Martin Sheen played RFK). There was Kennedy (Sheen again, this time as Jack), and Jane Alexander and Edward Herrmann as Eleanor and Franklin. We wallowed in Watergate with The Final Days (Nixon talking to the paintings), John Dean’s Blind Ambition, Robert Conrad as Liddy in Will, and even a gruesome fictionalized version in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (starring diabolical Jason Robards as President Richard Monckton).

There was even a prime-time network LBJ movie! Aired on NBC in 1987, LBJ: The Early Years starred Randy Quaid, chewing the scenery as Johnson, and a tart Patti LuPone as Lady Bird. It turned Camelot conventions on their heads. Joe, Jack, and Bobby ride in a darkened limousine. Bobby sputters that “Lyndon wants the Oval Office so bad he can taste the wallpaper.” Joe snarls, “Well, we’ll just have to show that cowboy what the Kennedys are really made of!” Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles, Kennedys cackle.

In recent years, though, such historically based programming largely has been shunted from the networks to cable. HBO, Turner, and Showtime regularly produce historical dramas, from last year’s Band of Brothers to Gary Sinise’s textured George Wallace a few years back. Later this month, the much-anticipated HBO film  Path to War will explore how LBJ and his men pushed the nation into the Vietnam quagmire. (And as Virginia Heffernan notes, the History Channel routinely produces documentary programming with a tabloid flair. Perhaps this profusion of low-budget history has made network programmers less eager to gamble on movie-of-the-week treatment of the same material.)

TheWest Wing and its inferior imitators show that audiences appreciate well-drawn characters who deal with hefty issues. Popular history sells: Presidential biographies now routinely dominate the best-seller lists. Recent volumes by David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and others could easily be produced for the small screen. Big-shot biography still can be found in the movies, from Malcolm X to the Oliver Stone oeuvre. But why no George Washington TV movie? Where are John and Abigail Adams? Is Lincoln really that dull? How about a movie actor who gets elected, gets shot, sells arms to Iran, busts the budget, and helps end the Cold War?

When I was serving as chief speechwriter in the White House, I was ever aware of those who had walked its halls. There were times when, if I closed my eyes, I saw TV movie presidents rather than real ones. My friends and I would joke about “Jack” and “Bobby,” but we were remembering Martin Sheen as much as the real JFK. When we grew up, those upper-middlebrow biopics were “events,” teaching moments for impressionable teens. The news media was much more discreet back then, and sometimes we learned what really happened through actors in pancake makeup. Now, we know far too much—and we watch docudramas far too little.