Rotterdam 2015 Review: WAR BOOK Makes For A Compelling Chamber Piece
This year, the opening film of the International Film Festival Rotterdam was Tom Harper's War Book, a British drama about a governmental brainstorm session. It seems an odd and rather dry choice for a festival starter, but the film has three strikes in its favor.
Strike One: it's an International premiere, meaning it's the first public showing outside of its home country.
Strike Two: it is a flagship title for one of the festival's most fun segments this year, about people's constant exposure to propaganda.
Strike Three: it is rather good.
At the height of the cold war, the British government held simulation exercises, detailing several what-if scenarios about nuclear warfare. Not so much the warfare itself, but questions like: how to make sure people get enough food and medicine? How to keep the home-front from rioting? The simulations were used to create notes and procedures on what to do if such an event really would take place, and the compilation of these is called a "War Book".
In War Book, a group of experts in London is called together for a new simulation. Each expert will play the part of a ministry, like health, defense, or agriculture, and the fictional events presented to them need to be seriously discussed.
At first, the experts are jovial. Then the fictional event is presented: extremist terrorists explode a nuclear device in Mumbai, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties and a spike in tension between India and Pakistan, two countries which both have the atom bomb. How should the United Kingdom react?
Easy questions get answered first, but after a while the experts hit subject matters of morality, fear and racism, and discussions within the group grow more heated. All struggle with maybe the most nagging question of all: why is the UK government, after nearly four decades, suddenly doing these nuclear war simulation exercises again?
While watching a group of people talk for 90 minutes may seem a chore, films like 12 Angry Men have shown that, if done well, it can make for compelling cinema. War Book doesn't quite reach the level of Sidney Lumet's 1957 classic, but it sure is good enough to keep its audience focused on some pretty interesting questions.
Acting is a bit wobbly at times, with the script giving each character both some great moments and some unfortunate scenery-chewing. Interruptions feel artificial, and so do some of the personal problems the experts are coping with. But these niggles never distract too much from the central questions, and director Tom Harper paces the film expertly, never allowing the proceedings to get sedate (let alone boring). Some extremely sobering facts even manage to get the tension up.
The timely use of quotes from known reports, for instance about the number of missing nuclear bombs and the number of organizations actively trying to start a war, will not make you laugh. Truth is, they are a bit scary, even.
Audiences in Rotterdam liked the film a lot, and awarded War Book a 4.2 out of 5.