Just in case you thought fears of nuclear apocalypse were confined to the 1980s like leg warmers and aerobics, Tom Harper’s War Book (2014) presents a tense reminder of the risks we run with the nuclear stockpiles in the hands of governing classes of dubious morality, not least of all our own. It’s 2014 and in a Whitehall office building, a young nervous civil servant (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) sets up the room in preparation for his political masters. He along with eight others will role-play a nightmare scenario – a nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India – over the course of three days. Senior civil servant Philippa (Sophie Okonedo) takes the lead in running the meeting and keeping egos in check.
Defence Secretary James (Nicholas Burns) represents the government with the kind of oikish caricature that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of The Thick of It. Peter Mandelson- like prince of darkness Gary (Ben Chaplin) takes on the role of the Prime Minister but seems more desirous of flirting with the attractive junior aide Kate (Phoebe Fox) as she reads out the scenario. However, when the game begins in earnest there is a thrill in seeing the politicians turn into something like administrators, facing impossible choices and arguing for their own preferred course of action. Gary takes the lead – in keeping with his role – while Maria (Kerry Fox) demands closed borders
Elsewhere, token liberal Tom (Shaun Evans) is suitably appalled by the draconian measures proposed. The elderly statesman (Antony Sher) playing finance talks about the role of the banks and very soon drastic measures are being contemplated as art treasures are hidden away, regional government finally devolved and soldiers sent to man the border. Harper, reunited with screenwriter Jack Thorne, who wrote his debut The Scouting Book for Boys (2009), does his best to make the minimalism of location – we see the foyer, a bench and the inside of a taxi, but for the rest of it we’re in the room – interesting from a cinematic point of view and largely succeeds. A truckers blockade is unfolding outside the room and it is this relatively insignificant, but real event which has the participants’ attention. However, it is the entre-acts where the politicos pair off to discuss their own issues which slow the narrative down and deaden the pace almost fatally.
An interminable scene between Philippa and Tom goes on and on and tells us nothing that we couldn’t have already gleaned from the action of the piece. When Philippa begins to recite a tombstone engraving in full, one can’t help but think that this is an obituary for all the momentum the story previously had. Ironically, the meaningfulness of the talk during the war game, renders much of the other (real life) talk meaningless. As the private lives of the characters intrude, they become less rather than more interesting and by the final act begin to leach away the drama that had been so effectively rendered in the first half. More dangerously, the plea to personal experience and/or anecdote also begins to muddy the political bite of War Book so that it begins to resemble a poorly thought-out episode of the The West Wing – with geopolitical realities subordinate to soapy backstory.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty