“We’re here to outplay a scenario”
I can’t remember who alerted me to Jack Thorne’s War Book being on iPlayer but I’m grateful to them as it is a classy little thing indeed, boasting a top-quality cast and Tom Hooper on directorial duties. A BBC4 drama that takes place over the three days of a role-playing exercise by the government in which assorted civil servants take on the mantle of the different departments tasked with responding to the outbreak of nuclear hostility between two countries, a conflict which threatens to break out into all-out nuclear war.
Designed as a hothouse experiment to produce the kind of thinking that can’t be replicated in traditional briefings, Thorne subtly suggests how decision-making, even at this level, can be shaped by personal circumstances (the husband struggling with his wife’s illness) but also how we’re not all in thrall to their influence (the cancer survivor who has to advocate for the withdrawal drugs from the general public). And as the ‘crisis’ escalates, serious questions are asked and discussed about what it really means to be a nuclear power.
As an essentially single-room drama, one can see the potential for War Book as a play, even a radio play, but Hooper ensures that the tension is wound tightly enough for it to work on the small screen and even with the muted colour scheme of typical bland bureacracy, produces some glorious shots – Sophie Okonedo backlit by the sun, Antony Sher leaning against a wall, a tracking shot that negotiates Kerry Fox eating a banana…the mundanest of details shine through with a painterly quality that just looks simply exquisite.
And it is acted extraordinarily well. Okonedo’s de facto leader anchors the debate with a fierce integrity, Shaun Evans’ tortured liberal struggles strikingly with keeping the personal out of his work life and Phoebe Fox as the administrator noting it all provides a beautifully spoken running commentary of the advancing horrors of the scenario. There are neat nods to public service stereotypes – the off-on-long-term-sick, the nervous newbie, the lifer and if there are a couple of sections that don’t quite work as well (the under-developed real life threat, the sexual gaming), the film overall is an impressive and thoughtful piece of work.