HBO // 2004 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // April 29th, 2005
On a quiet street the men next door are going about their business. The business of nuclear terrorism.
Produced for the BBC, Dirty War is a chilling and detailed look at what would happen if a dirty bomb would go off in a major western city. Some parts of this process are handled better than others, but the whole thing is an impressive television production that sends an important message.
Dirty War has more story than character. It follows the police, a fire crew, politicians, and a cell of terrorists through the process of a dirty bomb attack on London, England. The attack comes shortly after a publicity stunt in which the government promises that London is as prepared as possible for a nuclear terrorist attack. This is cast under suspicion as the police scramble to follow leads that there may be an upcoming attack. When the first bomb goes off, it proves that London is a long way from being ready, and there could be more waiting in the wings.
The dominant media's view of Arab terrorists has been evolving lately into a new shape that inspires more fear. The turban clad, stubble faced religious fanatics are a thing of the past, replaced by clean cut young men who wear ordinary clothes, live ordinary lives and live close to you. I'm sure this view is more accurate than what we see in films like True Lies, but I'm not sure it's any more constructive for society. This new terrorist tells us that we need to fear any North African person we see in this society, for any of them could have their finger on the detonator at any moment. One of the characters in Dirty War reminds us that such fanatics are only a small percentage of the Muslim population, but the rest of the film seems singular in creating racial fear in the audience. Even when we get to know the terrorists better, they seem like ordinary people. They have general complaints about how their people are treated around the world, but we never get to know their personal connection to these tragedies. We never get to see why these men decided to launch an attack in London.
Instead, we see the other side of things. The investigation and politics are covered in painstaking detail. This is the best part of the film, as it covers the inner political workings of the system. Is it better to rush and be prepared, risking a greater chance of an attack by announcing to the world that you are scared, or is it better to inspire confidence in the people, hoping that the attack will never come? The politicians choose the latter, though I'm not convinced it makes much difference. Although it's not explored by Dirty War, I can't imagine what it would take to fully prepare our society for this kind of attack, and I'm pretty sure it's not a society that we would enjoy living in.
Detailed coverage of the events was provided in lieu of compelling characters. Although we get to know the good guys better than we get to know the terrorists, none of the performances stand out. A female Muslim police officer named Sameena should have more deeply discussed the general Muslim population's views on extremist groups. It's a wasted opportunity, though. We also follow the minister, who tries her best to hold things together but is about as out of touch as most politicians seem to be. There is a firefighter named Murray (Alistair Galbraith) who tries to get his men prepared despite a severe lack of resources. Many of the characters are not named, and the ones that are don't stand out much. We do become attached to the firefighter more, because we get to see him in his relationship with his wife, but it's not enough. The film has a short 90-minute running time, and I think the film would have been much stronger if they had kept these details but also added personal scenes. As it is, Dirty War comes off dry, more interested in explaining what would happen than telling us a story.
The transfer of Dirty War is reasonably good, showing its television roots but satisfying overall. The cinematography is generic television work, and the CGI requires use of the imagination. Still, the overall quality of the 1.78:1 anamorphic image does the best it can with the source material. There is grain in some scenes, but it is inconsistent. The black level is not quite black, though the detail levels and colors are solid. There are a few compression problems, but it's not too distracting. The sound is not in 5.0 as stated on the case, but rather a flat feeling 2.0 stereo track that fails to inspire overall. There's not much music, but the dialogue is generally easy to understand, even with the accents.
The only extra on the disc is a commentary track with director Daniel Percival and writer Lizzie Mickery. It's a decent track to listen to, though sometimes they discuss the film as though they've done something different than the American media's terrorist coverage. It's not that different, even if they were attempting to create a more balanced approach.
Dirty War is designed to create fear about what could happen to us, and it does that effectively. I'm not sure the goal is noble, but it does present intriguing ideas. Dirty War is merely worth a rental, as the production values, script, and performances don't warrant multiple viewings. It's not a great film, but it has managed to hit a nerve at just the right time. They have done a lot of research to create this film, but that research has been used in a far more subjective film than intended.
The ideology of Dirty War is pretty inconsistent, but I am going to let it go with a warning.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track