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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Dirty War
Dirty War
HBO // Unrated // April 5, 2005
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Scott Lecter | posted May 30, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

September 11th clearly changed everything. Foreign politics, security measures, gathering and distribution of intelligence and, of course, the willingness of people to believe that just about anything can happen. No one believed that the events that happened on that infamous morning could ever happen. It was too surreal, too far fetched, and too much like a Hollywood blockbuster to be realistic. Unfortunately, those events became all too real, and changed how we live from day to day. The question remains, however, as to just how prepared our governments are in the event that a similar terrorist attack were to happen.

Dirty War takes that very question as its premise and sets out to show - albeit with a fictional story - that as much as our governments would like us to believe that they are fully prepared, they couldn't possibly be ready for the chaos that would ensue if a "dirty bomb" (a homemade radioactive device) were unleashed upon the unknowing public. Produced for the BBC, Dirty War is, specifically, about the preparedness in and around London for such an attack. And while it is very British in many ways, the overall message and lessons to be culled from the film can easily translate to just about any country in the world. This, in turn, makes the film all the more frightening.

Writer/Director Daniel Percival and Writer Lizzie Mickery precede the film with a warning that, although Dirty War is a work of fiction, their film is based on "extensive factual research." From the very start, the viewer is left to wonder just what aspects of the film is complete fiction and what might be all-too-frighteningly real. Percival and Mickery choose to weave several different perspectives throughout the film to provide a glimpse into the lives of each area of the impending attack.

We not only get to see through the eyes of Scotland Yard's finest, but also through the eyes of a female Muslim police officer, several different terrorists, and the suicide bombers themselves. What this does, in effect, is create a feeling of almost real-time events as they're happening on the infamous day that the bomb will, inevitably, be detonated. We not only get to see just how difficult the jobs of the government officials immediately become, but also what the emergency personnel must deal with when they arrive on the scene. It's a scary sight to behold as Scotland Yard scrambles around trying to figure out exactly what to do.

Possibly the biggest risk, however, that Percival takes with Dirty War is allowing the audience to follow the paths of several different areas of a terrorist cell as they plan and execute the suicide bombing. They allow us to see that the terrorists have families of their own, are incredibly intelligent, and extremely loyal. Most importantly, they allow us to see that the terrorists are absolutely firm in their beliefs and reasoning for what they are about to do. The intimacy with which Percival films his subjects creates an empathy for them that many other filmmakers would have been very wary to allow. You might not feel bad for them or wish they didn't have to die, but you do feel something for them, which is just scary enough to make you step back from the film for a moment or two. The fact that we get to see just how incredibly dedicated the terrorists are to their mission only makes the film scarier and more poignant.

Dirty War is not a perfect film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an extremely well written and well-acted work of fiction that actually feels much more real than many documentaries. If nothing else, the film causes you to wonder just how prepared your own government is in the event of such an attack. The fact that "dirty bombs" are so simple and rudimentary is an absolutely alarming prospect to behold, and one that I hope we will never have to deal with. Too many lives have already been lost throughout the world, and Dirty War is just another reminder that, without proper precautions and measures, many more could just as easily be lost.


Dirty War is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that may not be in the best of shape, but actually adds to the documentary-style feel of the film. There is quite a lot of grain and an overall murkiness to be found throughout most of the film, but it never becomes all that distracting. Detail is a bit soft and blacks could easily be deeper, but these are mostly problematic in darker scenes. Outdoor scenes are markedly less grainy and more intricately detailed. Fleshtones are accurate and color saturation is just fine. There are some dirt, spots, and scratches to be found on this transfer, but no signs of edge enhancement. The transfer overall, however, does an adequate job of presenting the material.

The audio on this disc is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 format that manages to get the job done. Although the packaging states that there is a Dolby Digital 5.0 track, there is no such audio to be found on this disc. Dialogue is always clear, crisp, and distinct, and is nicely balanced with the rest of the soundtrack. Spatial separation is just fine, but there is some very slight level fluctuation throughout the film. This track sounds as though it's just as good, if not slightly better, than the film's original broadcast quality. There are scenes, however, where Dirty War could certainly have benefited from a nice 5.1 surround mix. I would love to hear what the dirty bomb explosion, and the ensuing chaos, sounds like in a surround format. When pumped through Dolby Pro Logic II encoding, this track adds a bit of punch - and even a bit of low-end during the explosion. Nevertheless, this audio presentation won't knock you off your seat, but it still manages to provide an adequate aural experience.

The only extra feature on this disc is an audio commentary with Writer/Director Daniel Percival and Writer Lizzie Mickery that is good enough to actually make up for the lack of more extra features. Percival and Mickery quickly establish an excellent rhythm with each other on this track, which they manage to maintain throughout the entire film. They are incredibly chatty, intelligent, and thorough as they discuss the making of Dirty War and the lengths they had to go to get past everyone who wanted this film to simply go away. They discuss some of the extensive research they had to do before writing the film, and stay mostly screen specific as they explain how the costume department actually had to fabricate some of their own functioning bio-chemical suits for the film. The pair are very open about their knowledge of the workings of terrorist groups and just how prepared they believe worldwide governments (and especially England's government) are for such an attack. While it would have been nice to see a few more extra features on this disc, the interaction and intelligence of Percival and Mickery makes for a highly entertaining and insightful listen.

Final Thoughts:
A harrowing attempt at realism, Dirty War succeeds in providing a glimpse into the inner workings of both sides of the terrorist equation. We get to see the defense and the offense planning their strategies, holding practice, and executing the game plan. Daniel Percival shows just how difficult it is to actually stop these terror cells from going through with their mission, which is scary enough to see, but what is even more frightening is the nearly complete lack of preparedness with which government officials are attempting to handle the problem. The film may be a work of fiction, but it plays extremely realistically, and is easily enough to make you sit up at night and wonder what might happen if a "dirty bomb" were to find its way into your area. It really makes you wonder if your own government is just as ill prepared as Scotland Yard is in the film itself. The very thought of which is enough to make anyone paranoid.

HBO Video has been kind enough to port this BBC feature over to the states with an adequate audio-visual presentation and an insightful and entertaining commentary track. While a few more extra features about terror cells and rudimentary government plans in the event of such an attack would have certainly been welcome, what we do have included on this disc is enough to garner my recommendation.

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