One thing that can be said for "Ike: Countdown to D-Day," premiering tonight on the A&E cable network, is that it must be the quietest war movie of all time. This is not necessarily a virtue, of course, unless you have a sleeping baby, or a drowsy old mother-in-law, sacked out on a sofa near the Sony.
Maybe the two-hour film, at 8 and again at 10, just doesn't want to be noticed. Certainly nothing about it commands attention or the tiniest emotional investment. Could it be that writer and executive producer Lionel Chetwynd thinks the plans for D-Day should still be kept secret? That would explain the maddeningly whispered, tippy-toe approach, if not exactly excuse it.
Tom Selleck is clankily miscast as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, as the clock ticks (quietly) down to D-Day, the 6th of June, 1944. The case could be made that, for years, Tom Selleck has been miscast as an actor. Specifically, though, it's fair to ask what more can possibly be said about D-Day in a movie or a TV show, especially after Darryl F. Zanuck's "The Longest Day" and Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan"? Chetwynd has latched onto a respectable and dependable premise appropriate to the small playing field of television: Let's look behind the scenes at the planning for the Allied invasion of Normandy and at the pressures on those who made those plans.
Selleck makes for a very icy Ike, even a pretty icky Ike, to be less charitable about it. He doesn't look at all like the great hero, though he went to the trouble of shaving his head and taking up cigarettes as superficial cosmetic touches. If we aren't going to see a rivetingly intimate portrait of Eisenhower, if it's just going to be as if one of Madame Tussaud's statues grew wheels and rolled sneakily out of the museum one day, then what indeed has been accomplished by the film?
Anyone who wants the bare facts with little characterization can get them elsewhere, including in many another and better movie.
We are given some insight into the politicking and egomania of those trying to elbow Ike out of his place in history. When Gen. George S. Patton (Gerald McRaney) drops by Ike's headquarters to quibble and grumble, Ike issues an uncustomarily testy "Goddammit, George, shut up!" Eisenhower is similarly curt with a colonel who, while drunk, gets blabby about the D-Day preparations in a bar. "You'll have to go home immediately," Eisenhower tells him later in his office, "and you won't be coming back."
Ike is a pillar of humility throughout by contrast to a pompous strutter like England's Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery (Bruce Phillips). Discussing FDR with Churchill, Eisenhower says humbly, "I'm expendable. You two are not." But we also see him being baldly career-conscious even at such a pivotal, singular moment. If the plan fails, he tells Churchill, "we both go down together," and earlier in the film, he mulls the effect of failure on his career.
There's no talk about someday running for president, which would have sounded like historical revisionism, but neither is there a mention of Eisenhower's relationship with loyal jeep driver Kay Summersby. Instead, Ike writes a tender letter home to his belovedly dowdy Mamie: "There's no true glory in war."
At the end of the film, Chetwynd and director Robert Harmon re-create yet another fabled moment from the D-Day experience, Ike hunkering down with some of his paratroopers and trying to be a common man as he makes with the folksy chitchat. It's one of the few times when Selleck and the film itself both show glints of light and a peep of life. Otherwise, this attempt to honor the big-shot heroes of D-Day succeeds only in reducing them to tedious guests at a cocktail party -- some petty, some petulant, some pompous, and most of them considerably, and disappointingly, smaller than life.