Provocative and essential nuclear war-themed drama from Tom Harper
Locked away in a nondescript room in the House of Commons, a small group of aides play out the 'war book' – protocol designed to test out the government response to a nuclear attack. Written in the 1950s, the exercise is put through its paces every few years but, as aides furiously debate every possible scenario, the hypothetical begins to feel chillingly real.
The end of human existence has long fascinated filmmakers but, while most confront our collective mortality with explosive effects and superhuman endeavour, War Book explores the backstage political machinations that could usher in the end of days. Here, the threat is a nuclear attack by Pakistan on India that demands a global response; as all options are considered, so follows the inevitable breakdown of healthcare, food distribution and communication networks, financial institutions and everything else we take entirely for granted.
That the action is confined to single-room discussions invites comparison to 12 Angry Men that's entirely well-deserved. Jack Thorne’s remarkable script is a masterclass in slow-burn tension, combining black-and-white facts with the murky greys of human emotion to drive home the fragility of social order in the face of incoming warheads. Director Tom Harper showcases the astute observational style previously seen in his 2009 debut The Scouting Book for Boys, allowing this apocalyptic story to unfurl through the intimate interactions of its characters.
There is not a single weak link amongst the impressive ensemble cast, who keep up with Thorne’s powerful dialogue as it ricochets around the room with increasing tempo. Each character has been assigned a pivotal political role – Ben Chaplin’s swaggering Gary takes the part of the Prime Minister, Shaun Evans’ Tom represents the Department of Health, and so on – but the drama comes not from these text-book responsibilities but the real-world beliefs, prejudices and agendas of those present.
So it is that the no-nonsense experience of Maria (Kerry Fox) comes up against the wide-eyed idealism of Austin (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), while Gary’s machismo continually threatens to overwhelm proceedings. And, as external factors – including a less-than-subtle flirtation between Gary and note-taker Kate (Phoebe Fox) – also infiltrate proceedings, the message is clear: our survival could one day depend on the decisions of strangers acting not just out of procedure, but raw human emotion.
Despite this terrifying premise, the film is careful to maintain a neutral narrative tone. While Antony Sher’s veteran David may be given a stirring soliloquy about the necessity of a calculated nuclear response, this is tempered not just by the opposition of his more liberal colleagues, but also the stark reality that the UK only holds a small amount of nuclear weaponry. This is the mastery of War Book – it’s a film that informs its audience but also expects it to think for itself, effectively encouraging further debate and discussion. As such, it’s a powerful, provocative and essential piece of modern British cinema.
Selected theatrical release from Fri 7 Aug. Screening on BBC4 on Tue 11 Aug.