Judge Maurice Cobbs had never before found himself tensely on the edge of his seat, waiting for a weather report, until he saw this movie.
The fate of millions rests upon the fortitude of one.
"Could Normandy happen today? No—that's our culture and we have to accept it. Today's press would be saying, 'Why are Churchill and Roosevelt and Eisenhower lying to us? We know there's no army where you say it is—and the American public has a right to know.' They would have been saying, 'You can't send Sherman tanks into France.' Thousands of things. Plus it was 1944—an election year. It would have been a very hard thing to accomplish without making judgments that were political. It was a different time."—Tom Selleck
Facts of the Case
December, 1943: With the world consumed by the flames of war, and with Nazi tyranny dominating Europe, one man takes control of the largest military force history has ever seen, a force specifically built to smash into Fortress Europe. But Dwight D. Eisenhower (Tom Selleck, Quigley Down Under) has to contend with more than military strategy and logistics: He also has to build strategy for dealing with a wide assortment of colorful personalities, including Winston Churchill (Ian Mune, The Last of the Ryans), Gen. George Patton (Gerald McRaney, Major Dad), and British Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery (Bruce Philips, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).
Tom Selleck looks absolutely nothing like Dwight D. Eisenhower, to begin with. He has shaved off that Magnum, P.I. moustache, even shaved his head—and he still looks nothing like Ike. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
I have never been quite so impressed by Selleck's acting ability as I was in this movie. He made me believe—despite the physical dissimilarities and despite my deeply ingrained memories of him in Hawaiian shirts and driving a Ferrari. Ike was an Everyman sort of soldier, and Selleck hangs his performance on that fact. He gives us a straightforward, personable, capable, chain-smoking Ike, and director Robert Harmon (Gotti) gives Selleck all the room he needs to show Ike's organizing and planning abilities, native intelligence and people skills, and frustration at the size and importance of the task set before him. Rather than dazzling us with makeup and special effects, this TV movie has the rather quaint notion of drawing us in with acting ability and directorial skill, and Ike: Countdown to D-Day more than delivers. Ike's battles are fought in meetings and at conference tables; that is where the film stays, lending a sort of stage play quality to the movie, leaving the more dynamic battle scenes to movies like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Consider this movie the prologue to those excellent films; knowing how much struggle went into the planning of D-Day can only give you a deeper appreciation of how well it actually came off when executed.
This film is outstanding—absolutely on the highest end of the TV-movie spectrum. The production values are as good as any theatrical release, with beautiful, even haunting cinematography and excellent costuming and set design that completely bring you into wartime 1940s. This is a war movie for people who don't like war movies: Instead of being bombastic, it is quiet and thoughtful; instead of being fast-paced with quick cuts and shaky camera work, it is steady and methodical; instead of focusing on the blood and horror and intensity of war, it focuses on the tedious and frustrating behind-the-scenes work that makes the big battles possible. Can it be possible to make a powerful, compelling, and engrossing war movie without a gajillion dollars and 300 digital effects shots and overwrought, overpaid one-note actors spouting clichés while explosions thunder?
Squarely at the movie's heart is Selleck's interpretation of Ike. Rather than attempting to mimic Eisenhower (which would have looked absurd), Selleck chooses instead to portray the sort of personality Ike was. And so we are shown a man who is friendly, even avuncular (but also stern and uncompromising when need be), who shuns the press and insists that even Roosevelt and Churchill accept his lead as supreme commander (insisting also that, should D-Day fail, he and he alone should bear responsibility for it: "I'm expendable," he says in conference with Churchill, "you are not"), and who never loses his compassion for the men that he is sending to their deaths in the cause of freedom.
Part of the reason that this movie works so well is that it stays quite narrowly focused on its premise: It is indeed a countdown to D-Day, and screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (The Man Who Captured Eichmann) doesn't stray from that focus. This is not a comprehensive portrait of Eisenhower so much as it is a portrait of Eisenhower in his most daunting moments, a study of a rather common and unassuming man who is given the key to the most powerful military force in history, with the fate of the world literally hanging in the balance. The movie builds a great deal of suspense, despite the inevitability of historical fact: In some ways, you get the idea that breaking the Nazi grip on Europe was the least of Ike's troubles. We watch him manage the egos of not only his subordinate generals, but of his larger-than-life superiors as well—not to mention the parade of supply problems, rivalries between our own branches of service and between the dozen or so nations allied with us, conflicting and questionable intelligence reports, uncertainties about the weather, and a thousand other details that could spell victory or defeat for the looming invasion.
The supporting cast is good, displaying real acting talent within the framework of this tight, no-frills screenplay. Ian Mune is particularly delightful as Churchill—what a role for an actor of Mune's ability! Timothy Bottoms (That's My Bush!) and James Remar (The Girl Next Door) are unremarkable but adequate in their respective roles as Gens. Omar Bradley and Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith; they are there as Ike subordinates, and they do little to draw attention away from the central character of the film. Fortunately, Bruce Philips offers terse conflict with Ike as Field Marshall Montgomery, and George Shevtsov (Let's Get Skase) is excellent in his brief scene as the arrogant and problematic Charles DeGaulle. This disc is also a boon for the DVD collector: The commentary with Selleck, Harmon, and Chetwynd is as informative as it is enthusiastic, with such a lack of pretense and such obvious adoration for the project that I enjoyed it as much as I did the feature. An interesting feature is also included: "Ike: The Filmmakers Reflect," which delves into the history of the project and the experiences that the three had while making the movie—Tom Selleck, guy's guy, is terribly charming here, laughing at himself for getting dizzy and a bit sick after mimicking Ike's smoking habit, and noting wryly, "I'm not sure I would have cast myself as Ike." No expense is spared in this release, from the beautiful picture quality and anamorphic widescreen presentation to the 5.1 digital surround sound. Very nice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, I know that the name of the movie is "Ike: Countdown to D-Day" and not "A Concise History of the Planning of D-Day." I realize that certain dramatic license must and will be taken. Having said that, I feel that there are a couple of minor sour notes struck by the production that must be addressed.
First of all, the portrayal of George S. Patton. Now, Patton was an odd sort of fellow, to say the least. Depending on your point of view, you could probably even make a case that he was a few bullets shy of a full clip. But he was absolutely not a buffoon, and this is how he appears in Ike. Whimpering, buffoonish, fumbling—none of these qualities accurately embody Patton, who was one of the strongest personalities to emerge in World War II. This movie has him literally burst into tears at the prospect of being sent home before the invasion. To be sure, being sent home in disgrace (for some thoughtless and highly inflammatory remarks regarding the fate of the postwar world) without being allowed to participate in the largest invasion in history would have been devastating to the general—but bursting into tears? I think not. This portrayal does nothing to honor Ike and is an insult to the memory of one of the most brilliant and colorful military leaders of the 20th century. Thankfully, Patton's scene amounts to little more than a mercifully brief cameo.
Also, an important historical aspect of D-Day is overlooked: Operation Neptune, which was the massive naval operation that made the invasion possible, receives no mention despite the fact that it was as much of a headache for SHAEF as Overlord (the ground invasion—think Saving Private Ryan). This seems like a glaring omission, especially in light of the attention to detail that this production otherwise shows.
Also conspicuous by its absence is the A&E Biography episode on Eisenhower. Given the narrow focus of this film, to include that biography as a extra would seem to be a no-brainer. What gives, guys?
I guess it took a Canadian to come up with a screenplay like this: There are attitudes and perspectives here that too few Americans embrace these days. A modern viewer cannot help but reflect on the difference between Ike's time and ours—can you imagine the savage beating a general today would get in the press if he refused to tell them anything? Can you imagine the reception that a D-Day-style invasion would get from the media—and the public—today, especially cloaked in such secrecy? Remember, these generals and world leaders were expecting colossal losses in this invasion, and they made the difficult decision to expend as many lives as necessary to defend world freedom and smash an axis of evil. But these were men who were thinking of the course of human events, the future of the free world, and the right of all people around the world to live without the shadow of terror and brutality looming over their heads—not the next election or their standing in the polls. Ike: Countdown to D-Day brings home the weight of the decisions that had to be made, and the willingness of the men of integrity and conviction from the highest levels of government to the lowest privates in the army to make those decisions and do the job that needed to be done.
But above all, the movie sets out to show the enormous scope of Ike's task in setting up the elements that would combine to bring about the destruction of Nazi tyranny, and it succeeds on that level, also managing to be engrossing, well acted, and tightly directed. Bravo!
Not guilty. Good job, soldier.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Actor Tom Selleck, Director Robert Harmon, and Screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd
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