Dirty War (2004)

(On Cable TV, September 2013) Watching this HBO/BBC film docu-drama about the possibility of a terrorist “dirty bomb” detonating in central London occasionally feels like an educational obligation: Dirty War is a procedural thriller trying to stick closely to consensual reality, and the result is a gritty, down-to-earth depiction of things that could happen at the expense of more conventional suspenseful thrills.  While the first half-hour is occasionally tedious, it does create an atmosphere of verisimilitude that becomes engrossing once the truly bad things start happening.  There are only a bare number of heroics here, with a conclusion that seems as grim as potential reality once containment breaks down and everyone has to acknowledge the consequences of the detonation.  Dirty War certainly isn’t feel-good film, and writer/director Daniel Percival’s grainy handheld cinematography sells the illusion of a quasi-documentary better than expected.  The film also has the merit of reflecting, in a non-hysterical but still highly sobering fashion, an entire decade’s worth of bottled anxiety about nuclear terrorism –and the somewhat measured tone helps the film stay current and effective a decade later.  (It helps that it’s somewhat ambivalent about the official government party line: hopeful about the abilities of the people involved, but somewhat skeptical about the ability of the government to manage a crisis)  There are even a few remarkable performances here, most notably Alastair Galbraith as a street-level worker stuck in an impossible situation, and Koel Purie as a voice-of-moderation Islamic policewoman.  Dirty War amounts to a slow-burn film that works quite a bit better than expected from the first few minutes… and certainly sticks in mind longer than the average shoot’em up Hollywood terrorist action movie.

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