Over the weekend of the 70th anniversary of the first — and so far only — use of atomic bombs in anger, cinemagoers in and around London will have an opportunity to see one of the most extraordinary movies about nuclear warfare ever made. (And then it will air on the BBC next week.) There are no mushroom clouds in War Book. There are no screams of fear or pain. There are no ticking countdowns that may or may not be defused in the nick of time. There is no disaster porn. No stock footage of test blasts from the 1950s is deployed. There are just civil servants and a couple of politicians sitting around a conference table somewhere in London, wargaming a hypothetical scenario involving an act of international terrorism and the geopolitical ramifications of it. War Book is nothing but people talking. And it is riveting. It is terrifying.
I first saw this at last year’s London Film Festival, almost a year ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Rewatching it again now has only reinforced my initial contention that this is one of the most important movies ever about not just nuclear weapons but about modern governance. War Book isn’t about so much about politics per se but about how stuff actually gets done in the halls of power by people who may not always like one another — for reasons personal and political and ideological — but who, in a life-or-death crisis, have no choice but to work together and compromise in order to move forward and, hopefully, save the day. Of course there are beefs among those participating in the simulation: for instance, Tom (Shaun Evans: Boy A, Being Julia), a bureaucratic cog playing the role of a member of the Prime Minster’s cabinet for the “emergency,” really cannot stand posh, arrogant actual MP Gary (Ben Chaplin: Cinderella, Me and Orson Welles), who has taken the role of Prime Minister for the game; and Gary cannot abide what he sees as Tom’s bleeding-heart liberalism. But as Philippa (Sophie Okonedo: Doctor Who, The Secret Life of Bees), who is running the scenario, reminds Tom in a private moment, after Tom’s anger gets the better of him: in a real crisis, everyone will have to put aside their differences.
But can they — should they — put aside strongly held beliefs about the best way to deal with a bad situation? Arguments get very heated very quickly over the three days of their wargaming, which posits a nuke set off in Mumbai by terrorists presumed to be funded by the Pakistani government. The detonation is nowhere near British soil, but there would be much to do for the British government nevertheless. The bombing creates an instant and unprecedented exodus of wounded and displaced people who will have to be helped; there is diplomatic pressure on the aggressors to be wielded (or not); there are the reactions of the UN and the U.S. to be observed and responded to (or not); and of course now that the nuclear genie has been released again, the likelihood of more nuclear attacks has shot up. Including those that could be launched by the U.K., a nuclear power, itself.
“What’s the protocol” for all this? one of the participants asks. But there isn’t any. That what they’re there to do: write the protocol. This isn’t something we often think about, how the structures that keep our modern society running get pushed in one direction or another by people sitting in a conference room. The wargamers grapple somberly with their task… well, except for Gary and the other MP, James (Nicholas Burns: The World’s End), whose snarking and joking doesn’t initially inspire much confidence in them. (The fantastic cast also features Kerry Fox [Trap for Cinderella, Intruders], Phoebe Fox [The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death], Nathan Stewart-Jarrett [Dom Hemingway, The Comedian], Adeel Akhtar [The Dictator, Traitor], and Antony Sher [The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Wolfman].) But the chilling mundanity of their project is overwhelming: something as horrific as nuclear war might ultimately be a matter of memos and procedures and bureaucracy.
War Book does not shy from its quiet horror. Director Tom Harper (The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death), working from a script by Jack Thorne (A Long Way Down), delivers an astonishing moment of cinema that is unlike what we typically see onscreen: When, at the end of their scenario, Philippa asks everyone to just take two minutes to think about what they’ve discussed before rendering a final verdict on a protocol that could someday have enormous repercussions, Harper also takes those two minutes. We are given two full contemplative minutes of silence to consider, along with the wargarmers, what is at stake: the survival of civil society, of a nation, of the planet. It’s rare enough that a movie — and this is, ultimately, an entertainment, if a provocative one — raises such big issues. But to also give us the space to really think about them? Amazing.
War Book is almost its own metaphor for how the modern world keeps running, and how easily it could fall apart. (In this respect, War Book is very much in the same thematic realm as the 1984 British TV movies Threads, which was sort of the U.K.’s The Day After, only much more unbearably horrifying. It’s still the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.) There isn’t much holding together this room full of smart, well-dressed people in a comfy office with coffee to hand as they argue about how best to steer the country. But they — and others like them around the world — are our only hope in many ways. They are us. We are at the mercy of the sometimes tenuous, sometimes desperate connection of humanity that unites them… or doesn’t.