Movies and TV shows about terrorism usually arenít very realistic, and follow a fairly predictable pattern. The hero(s) race against time to prevent a terrorist attack, and in the end foil the plot just in the nick of time. In Dirty War, the good guys fail to stop a dirty bomb attack in heart of London. Director Daniel Percival is interested in showing us what such an attack might actually be like, not how a team of elite operatives might prevent it.
Percival isnít just telling a story here, heís selling a pot of message, and the message is that we arenít prepared to deal with a terrorist attack involving WMDs. Dirty War begins with an exercise in London simulating a dirty bomb attack. The exercise reveals serious problems in the governmentís readiness to deal with such a crisis. There follows a predictable confrontation between a firefighter (Alistair Galbraith) who claims that a lot more money needs to be spent on preparedness, and a government minister (Helen Schlesinger) who believes itís more important to reassure the public by announcing that the government is fully prepared. (In nearly all disaster movies, there is a hero who sees the disaster coming and a bureaucrat who denies or covers up the problem.)
After that, Dirty War focuses on the search for a radical Islamist cell in London that may have smuggled radioactive material into the country. To deflect charges of bigotry, the search is aided by a female Scotland Yard detective (Koel Purie) who happens to be a Pakistani Muslim. Purie turns in a strong performance, and rescues the character from being nothing more than politically correct window dressing. Unfortunately, bureaucratic bungling hampers the search for the jihadists and the attack is carried out on a crowded London street at 8:00am, with devastating results.
Percival and his co-writer Lizzie Mickery have clearly done a lot of research, and it shows. Dirty War does a good job of depicting the confusion, chaos that would accompany a WMD attack. He depicts the heroism that such an attack would bring out as well. The scenes of Galbraith and his crew battling fires and rescuing victims at ground zero are well executed and powerful. Dirty War is entertaining, and works well as a disaster movie, but still has problems with its message.
Dirty War has been compared to The Day After, a well made piece of anti-nuclear and anti-Reagan propaganda from the 1980s. The comparison doesnít hold. The Day After was effective in part because it gave a sense that nuclear war was preventable if only we would disarm, or visualize peace, or whatever. Dirty War treats a terrorist WMD attack as inevitable, and blames the government for the chaos and disorder that is natural to all wars, dirty and otherwise. Percival uses his movie to suggest that we are spending too much on intelligence and defense, and not enough on first responders. But he also suggests that dirty bomb could render much of London uninhabitable for many years. If thatís true, then perhaps Western governments need to spend money on more than just putting out the fires, treating the injured, and recovering the dead.