Coming on the heels of FX’s telecast of “Smallpox” — another cringe-inducing glimpse of a worst-case scenario by director Daniel Percival — HBO weighs in with its second terrorism-related British import of the month, the other being “The Hamburg Cell,” a behind-the-scenes deconstruction of the Sept. 11 hijacking plot. Like that fact-based account, this fictional film offers a grim, no-nonsense approach to material that hews so closely to reality it has the uncomfortable feel of a warning shot, as “Failsafe” was to the Cold War generation.
Chronicling both the machinations to thwart, and the subsequent fallout from, a dirty-bomb attack in the heart of London, Percival’s latest (already seen in the U.K.) isn’t a mock documentary, as “Smallpox” was, but still possesses much of that verite style.
After authorities stage a poorly executed emergency drill, the Minister of London (Helen Schlesinger) tells a concerned committee when it comes to terror risks and educating the public, “There has to be a balance between truth and reassurance.” Similarly, another character subsequently notes that fueling anxiety only plays into the terrorists’ hands.
Nevertheless, “Dirty War” is all about anxiety, capitalizing on its fictional underpinnings to press the case — more effectively, in some respects, than news divisions can — that the West is woefully unprepared for the kind of mind-boggling attacks that are possible employing nuclear or biological weapons.
If there’s a negative to Percival’s unflinching approach, it’s that he disperses the point of view among multiple characters, keeping the net impact of what’s technically a first-rate enterprise muted and relatively cold. Beyond the deadly race between Scotland Yard and the terrorists, his multi-pronged story is most human when following a committed firefighter (Alastair Galbraith) who decries the city’s lack of preparation before facing the ultimate nightmare, storming into a radioactive “hot zone” with massive casualties and inadequate equipment.
Featuring a talented cast whose limited recognition adds to the movie’s authenticity, “Dirty War” is an activist endeavor that HBO is promoting as such — enlisting former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman for a recent press conference to discuss the issues involved. In that respect, cable appears to be expanding boundaries in a manner that has nothing to do with language or nudity by asking viewers to look directly at harrowing possibilities they would surely rather avoid.
Yet if Percival’s productions amount to disaster movies for the post-Sept. 11 era, there is good cause for skepticism regarding the size of the audience eager to be reminded of these threats. (An edited version of the movie will be broadcast on PBS, through a recent deal with HBO.) For while people have always enjoyed a good scare from the movies, we tend to favor more exotic disasters of, say, the alien invasion variety.
In short, even in an age of so-called reality television, beyond the narrow confines of cable, the harsh medicine of “Dirty War” might be a little too much reality to take.