Dirty War Movie Review

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How does a nation prepare for the unthinkable?

In BBC Films' Dirty War, Muslim fanatics detonate a "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive rigged to scatter radioactive fallout, in the heart of London. More like The Day After than a season of 24, Dirty War explores the vicious impact of such an attack, as well as how terrifyingly unpreventable it could be.

In the opening sequence, a civil defense drill, unrealistically set up to succeed, goes awry anyway, revealing how unequipped and unprepared British authorities are for an urban terrorist strike. While public officials do their best to put on a brave public face, domestic law enforcement attempts to dismantle a domestic terror cell before they do God-knows-what. The terrorists, meanwhile, successfully import radioactive material in poorly disguised canisters of cooking oil, and plot their attacks.

With a semi-verité style and script, Dirty War effectively forms an atmosphere of fear and foreboding. So what's the point of all this? It seems to be that terrorists can pretty much ruin a section of a city forever if they want to, and there's really nothing we can do about. In that sense, Dirty War is a disaster movie, not really the "thriller" it's promoted to be. When The Day After aired on ABC in 1984, it was intended as a warning against the U.S. and USSR continuing to pursue their nuclear arms race. In Dirty War, however, the warning seems mostly to be against standing in crowded places. Law enforcement does its best to prevent the attack, with only partial success, and the cops point out that even with good intelligence on the IRA, an enemy they understood, Northern Ireland still suffered decades of death from "the Troubles."

Unlike most American takes on Islamic terrorism, Dirty War features a diverse array of Muslims, including a critical member of the counter-terrorism unit and a bare-midriffed hottie working at a convenience store. No disclaimer is needed; the movie's full of careful examples.

Like most American takes on Islamic terrorism, however, you might find yourself cheering for the cops as they commit savage violations of civil rights and international law. If you're the type of person who's skeptical about law enforcement, the modern surveillance state, or the PATRIOT Act, you might find this infuriating. Then again, if you're not, you might wish that the West could make its security fence a little higher. And if you're anyone with half a lobe, you might be spurred to ponder why fanatics would want to kill an international crowd of innocents who happen to be in the wrong 'hood at the wrong time.

Dirty War for the most part stays out of the international politics that breed terrorism, focusing instead on the indefensibility of the homeland. For an American audience, the British accidents will provide no comfort; it's no great stretch to imagine this movie in New York or D.C. But it's harder to imagine what this movie's meant to accomplish, beyond scaring us witless, and perhaps scaring up more funding for British homeland security.

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Dirty War Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 2004

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