The setting of “War Book” couldn’t be further from the sun-dappled Norfolk countryside of Tom Harper’s debut, “The Scouting Book for Boys” (beloved here at The Playlist, but little seen at home in the U.K., and even littler seen in the U.S.). The action (if we can call it that) of his sophomore effort is almost entirely confined to a single room, where a group of mid-level British civil servants, standing in for more important government ministers, run through the protocol required in the event of a nuclear attack.
Over the course of three days, they debate the appropriate humanitarian and military responses to a hypothetical crisis, and as the imaginary stakes are raised, what initially starts out as glib political horse-trading turns into something with far greater moral and ethical weight—who should get priority in the event that medical supplies are rationed, whether the U.K. should stand side by side with the United States, and ultimately, and most hotly contested, whether or not to deploy the U.K.’s own nuclear missiles. As thorny questions of policy and morality are debated, the personal politics within the group begin to surface, as does the sense that there may be more at stake here than the purely hypothetical.
In 2009, the declassification of British government documents revealed that scenarios (or “War Books”) such as this were indeed played out in the corridors of Whitehall during the height of the Cold War, and with a handful of references to North Korea and Iran, this anxious nuclear premise is plausibly updated to 2014.
The screenplay by Jack Thorne (“The Scouting Book For Boys,” “A Long Way Down,” and currently working on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s “Sandman”) is extremely dense, full of precise Sorkin-esque political detail and Important Questions about politics, race, class, and morality. The classic people-talking-in-a-room drama “12 Angry Men” is an obvious touchstone, but the satirical eye Thorne casts on petty governmental bureaucracy and the casual arrogance of power also recall Armando Iannucci’s work in “The Thick of It” and “In The Loop.” There’s a razor-sharp sense of humor running throughout that serves not only to skewer, but to leaven, the political debate. However, this isn’t merely poking fun at politics, with the humour gradually giving way to something more chilling.
One of the film’s great strengths is the precisely observed characterization. Indeed, it is often the shifting terrain between the characters themselves that makes the politics so compelling. The performances are uniformly strong. Sophie Okonedo is tightly coiled as Philippa, the woman in charge of running the exercise, while Shaun Evans brings a moral righteousness to Tom, the liberal idealist increasingly incensed by what he sees as the hypocrisy of the decisions being made. Good support, too, comes from Ben Chaplin (as smarmy ex-journalist Gary), Kerry Fox, and Anthony Sher. Rising star Phoebe Fox (soon to be seen as the lead in Harper’s “The Woman In Black: The Angel Of Death”) gets little to do as a note-taking assistant and object of Gary’s lecherous advances, although her presence is key to revealing a piece of information that raises the stakes of the war games being played.
While this is primarily a showcase for Thorne’s impressive screenplay, Harper does a good job of making something interesting and compelling, if not particularly cinematic, out of eight people talking in what is, let’s be honest, a fairly drab room. It takes a lot of guts to let a two minute silence, during which the characters are instructed to sit quietly and think about a particularly thorny moral question, play out in real time, and it’s to Harper’s credit, as much as Thorne’s, that these minutes feel so tense and compelling—we almost believe that the fate of the western world might actually rest on the outcome of their theoretical deliberations.
There’s no escaping the fact that the brazen talkiness can at times feel like a dramatic exercise (it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the project was originally intended for the stage), and while some audiences may find it hard to keep up with, or maintain interest in, the nuances of the moral, political, and personal issues at stake, those paying close attention will be rewarded. [B+]