10 October 2004 | bob the moo
An 'enjoyable' drama that is all the more interesting for its setting in a possible reality
London is no different from any other major Western city it is a target for terrorism. As such the Government makes noise about the risk and being alert, sending out booklets for the public to feel secure but also on edge, while the security forces within the UK prepare the best they can. A biological attack response drill highlights the weaknesses of the possible response. While the anti-terrorism unit of Scotland Yard continue to try and get inside-information, politicians debate the risks in stuffy boardrooms, while also keeping the realities of the situation from the public. While the security forces follow a lead from a notebook found on a raid, a small group of Islamic fundamentalists smuggle radioactive material into the UK and begin planning for a major terrorist strike using low-grade nuclear material in a primitive 'dirty' bomb.
You can argue about whether this film is a jump to seize on fears over terrorism to get ratings; or that it is only going to worry people; or that it helps the terrorists by giving them insider information on possible responses but what this film should do is inform about the realities of the possible situation. Percival previously made Smallpox 2002; another timely film about the outcome of a biological attack. It was an effective film whose only real weakness is that the 'video diary' approach made it feel a little bit like amateur hour with the cast not really being as convincing as they should have been. Here the film takes the style of more of a drama than anything else so we start with the bomb attack being set up and we go from there. Although the film is written to make a point, it is also a good drama and at times it felt I was watching series 2 of 24 at some points. The film doesn't seem to contain anything that would tell terrorists a great deal about what is going on or at least no more than any Hollywood film would; the makers may have had advice from the Government on the film but I thought it was public knowledge about listening to chatter, raids, links with other bodies etc?
The film is useful in a way because it made me think about the risks and what would actually happen if the worst did happen. Like one of the characters said 'we knew what the IRA was doing 90% of the time but they still got through with these guys we know very little', so the risk is there even if some would have you believe it is spin. However the film is not blind to the problems of planning and there are many scenes near the start that present this. Police say not enough is done but politicians point out that giving everyone a gasmask on the tube would cause panic; politicians talk up the training of the emergency services, but the actual officers try to work out what a drill with 60 'casualties' has to do with the real situation of a city of millions in turmoil. There are no easy answers but the film provided me a lot more information and food for thought than the Government's recent booklet. In case you haven't seen it, the booklet lists what the populace should do in the event of an emergency; in most cases the idea is to stock up on tinned, processed foods and stay indoors watching TV for announcements watching TV and eating junk food? The Government does not need to tell the majority of us to do that, we're already there!
The cast are much better than the Smallpox film and the decision to play it as a drama means that it has a better impact as a drama and not just as an issue film of its time. The fact that it 'could' happen obviously makes it pretty exciting but the drama is good enough on its own to be exciting and rather unnerving. Whether or not it helped me I can't say but I did enjoy the film (if enjoy is the right word) and felt it was very professionally made. It came across as a balanced presentation of reality and was aware of the good work done/being done but also the limitations of any planning or possible response actions. However this it is not so balanced as to not pour out criticism where it is deserved and a scene where a politician condemns the terrorists and praises the resilience of Londoners while the world falls to pieces behind her is particularly effective. One thing it didn't do as well as I would have liked was to actually resolve the situation it ends suddenly and doesn't link to the scenes of chaos that had gone just minutes before it but this is a minor complaint and I suppose it couldn't keep upping the ante without drawing it to a close at some point.
A wider downside to the film is that, because it's topical, the BBC had to follow it with a live studio debate featuring 'experts' and an audience who have just seen the film and are still knee-jerking over it. Angry Muslims raged about how they were all painted as terrorists (even though the film had gone to silly lengths to do just the opposite); mothers wept about how they would get their kids from school (even though the film made it clear you stay where you are); angry right-wingers (not Giggs) confirmed that it is all happening because too many of 'them' are getting in. Meanwhile any voice of balance or reason from the panel was lost as they all tried to push their own agenda the guy from the Muslim Council of Britain being the worst, just pushing his own line no matter what he was asked.
Overall this is a very good drama special that manages to come across as very realistic. As a piece of fiction or as non-fiction, it is engaging and very interesting painting a balanced view of the planning limitations prior to an attack in an entertaining but interesting fashion. However, as a view of a possible response, it is chilling at times and does well to show London covered in a nuclear cloud with the British love of orderly queuing very quick to vanish in the face of a crisis. A timely, entertaining, chilling and worthwhile drama at some points it is a documentary while at others it comes across as 24; in both ways it works, producing a film well worth seeking out.