The Cold War may be over, but our planet is no safer from the dangers of escalating nuclear conflict, according to “War Book,” a modestly achieved British chamber piece that reunites the director (Tom Harper) and screenwriter (Jack Thorne) of 2009’s “The Scouting Book for Boys.” Largely confined to a wood-paneled meeting room, the pic presents animated discussions between a U.K. government minister and several aides as they work through the implications of a nuclear device exploding in South Asia. An alarming (or perhaps alarmist) scenario and cast names should help this verbose drama hit its target as talking-point TV, with occasional theatrical berths.
Pre-credits text explains that, since the 1960s, British civil servants have met to play out war-game scenarios, their discussions helping them to formulate government procedure in the event of nuclear attack. Now, in 2014, eight officials — plus the unexpected bonus of the defense secretary (Nicholas Burns) — meet briefly over three successive days, exploring unappealing scenarios that would be triggered by a Pakistani group detonating a nuclear bomb in Mumbai, India.
Reasonably fearing that audiences won’t want to watch such lengthy discussions, Thorne maintains an unflagging pace by ensuring that all the participants are monumentally busy with their regular workloads, especially since outside, in the real world, a truckers’ blockade threatens to bring the country to a halt (as actually happened in September 2000). Each day’s convocation plays out in real time, in less than 30 minutes, raising the question of whether these officials would choose to burden their calendars with three separate meetings of such brevity. Questions of plausibility aside, this tactic undoubtedly improves the film’s rhythm, as decisions in multiple policy areas are taken with extreme rapidity by a show of hands.
Day one sees the participants, each standing in for a government minister, discuss immediate responses in areas of health, border control, law and order, financial regulation and diplomacy. On the following days, as the imagined scenario becomes progressively bleaker, the proxy ministers must consider ever more dire options, including, ultimately, the U.K.’s own nuclear response.
Young aide Tom (Shaun Evans), representing the Department of Health, emerges as the most impassioned dove; hawkish alpha male Gary (Ben Chaplin), a special adviser who is playing the prime minister in these discussions, delights in macho provocation. Senior civil servant Philippa (Sophie Okonedo) is a calming presence as the meeting’s chair, while no-nonsense Maria (Kerry Fox) provides a more maturely persuasive voice for tough action. A sleazy private flirtation between Gary and junior aide Kate (Phoebe Fox), dropped in as a curtain raiser on day three, offers welcome punctuation and introduces fresh information, hinting that the ongoing discussions might soon have an urgent relevance.
Ultimately, the British establishment is clearly happier dishing out wisdom than receiving it, even when the topic is conflict between two Asian nations. Thorne’s dialogue becomes increasingly theatrical as the stakes rise; each actor more or less gets their moment in the sun, although it may be no accident that two of the three characters of color (played by Adeel Akhtar and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) are heard the least. As Roger Donaldson’s “Thirteen Days” proved, a talkathon rooted in a historical moment of genuine peril can be far more gripping than any invented drama, and many audiences may find the final act of “War Book” to be risibly paranoid by comparison.
Tech credits are unlikely to burnish any particular crew member’s resume, although casting director Julie Harkin deserves credit for delivering this ensemble for a production of presumably modest resources. The widescreen framing might seem a spuriously cinematic choice for such an intimate setting, but it suits the conference room’s layout. The sparse score is used judiciously, the verbal pyrotechnics hardly requiring much musical accompaniment.