The imminent threat of nuclear war is at the forefront in War Book, Tom Harper’s exhilarating political thriller that posits the world shattering implications of global nuclear warfare in the 21st century. Taking place primarily in one board room with only eight characters, the film is an exceptional display of suspenseful filmmaking and perfectly pitched acting that brings the legacy of the Cold War into stark focus and brings home the still chillingly real danger that the world, and specifically the UK, faces from nuclear annihilation.
In a room somewhere in one of the UK government’s London offices, a group of staffers convene for a meeting that is unlike any other. They have gathered to run the War Book scenario; a hypothetical role play that has been in place since the end of World War II. It allows for the group to take on the roles of high level government officials and make decisions based on the prospect of nuclear conflict. The implications are terrifyingly real as the staffers must vote on such measures as shutting down the borders, rationing food and medicine, enacting martial law and firing their own nuclear weapons on enemy states. If these decisions were not hard enough to make, there is a danger that those who must make these decisions might not be strong willed enough to rise above their own personal issues to make the right ones.
Since the ending of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation has lessened in the face of more tangible threats such as disease, terrorism and climate change, and not much thought is given to the fact there are still nuclear weapons out there, waiting for someone to flick the switch. The War Book is designed to keep the UK government apprised of solutions to the worst case scenarios so if it were to occur, they would be prepared. The terrifying aspects of this are revealed in the film as each staffer looks at the effect of a nuclear device being detonated in Mumbai from the brief they have been given to run through; health, defence, finance and the Prime Minister’s Office, and it is through these aspects that the cracks in society become all the more clear.
We all live on a knife edge between civility and chaos and the government’s job is not to maintain the status quo, but merely damage control. Riots, looting, food shortages, medicine rationing and quarantine are just the first problems to be faced as the situation worsens. The more the staffers discuss the options the less they seem to have. The possibility of nuclear war is considered so slim, that not only is the UK woefully unprepared, but the country’s own nuclear arsenal is only 1.4% of the world’s supply. The questions become then, does merely possessing nuclear weapons make the UK a target themselves? If so, is there enough to even retaliate? The inevitable answer is: it doesn’t matter. Once nuclear weapons come into the equation, everything is over.
A film of people sitting around a table discussing things looks at first glance like an exercise in boredom, but Jack Thorne’s very intelligent and at times witty screenplay is brought to suspenseful life by director Tom Harper. The characters sit around an oval shaped table to allows for the camera to rove around them, pulling in and out as the tension builds or lessens. The choreography and camera blocking is so meticulously thought out and executed with such precision that the direction becomes almost invisible while affecting you subconsciously. There is a real mastery of visual language here that really brings home the sheer terror implied in this hypothetical exercise.
The actors too bring the script to life and are all so perfectly cast as government staffers and officials at different levels of power. Two ministers join the group, played by an electric Ben Chaplin (The Thin Red Line) as an Eton educated classist with designs on a leadership position, and Nicholas Burns (Nathan Barley) as the kind of class clown that thinks the scenario is all just a game and provides most of the film’s comedy relief. The rest of the staffers are made up of lower functionaries, but who are in important enough support positions to make their opinions as clear a point of view as those of the government who will need to make these decisions in real time. The skill of these actors also bring to the fore the personal relationships they all share as co-workers and the subtlety of their backstories is brought to life by the way they each speak to and interact with each other, which makes their conclusions during this scenario all the more suspenseful.
As one staffer points out in the film, all global crises go in cycles. First it is nuclear, then disease, then terrorism and so on until it all comes back around to nuclear again. War Book brings into focus the danger the world still faces from nuclear weapons, that there are so many out there unaccounted for that this scenario could become all the more real at any given moment. Even without the threat of nuclear conflict hanging over our heads, currently the threat of Ebola is causing nations to put in place screening checkpoints at all their international borders, a decision that would have been made in back rooms just like the one in this film.