Wednesday, May 07, 2008

I don't want to do nothin' neither.

The War Game is disturbing in a way that only a story told with uncompromising logic can be. This is precisely what made Peter Watkins' pseudo-documentary, which was banned by the BBC (under pressure from the government, according to Watkins) only to be released theatrically to awards and heated debate, so controversial. The film's depiction of a hypothetical nuclear attack simply shows us what is already apparent - that such an attack would have devastating consequences almost beyond our comprehension - with precision and honesty, and these qualities alone proved threatening to a media institution committed to downplaying or ignoring obvious truths of the nuclear race. Watkins' film reminds that sometimes all one needs to do to create an uproar is state the obvious, which The War Game does with horrifying clarity.

The film is roughly divided into to parts - the first a depiction of the preparation for nuclear attack from the Soviet Union following a pre-emptive strike by NATO, the second dramatizing the potential aftermath of a nuclear blast in Kent. With a detached sense of irony, Watkins juxtaposes images of residents calmly preparing for attack - evacuating their homes, stockpiling supplies (one subject matter-of-factly shows us the shotgun he fully intends to use if necessary) and piling sandbags - against the total chaos of the film's deliberately heavyhanded second half. The graphic images of charred skin and dismembered bodies are shocking for their time, but completely justifiable; Watkins' approach is confrontational, using pure image as an inarguable response to the justifications of nuclear war he intercuts with the mounting carnage and despair. These interview scenes, with both actors performing pro-war arguments taken from real-life government and clergy figures as well as the misinformed opinions of citizens interviewed on the street, are shot with a flat aesthetic faithful to the talking-head approach of journalism that Watkins is challenging. When cut against the shaky, fragmented post-attack scenes, they create a powerful statement on the media's ability to create the illusion of security in the face of total chaos.

It's worth noting how the mainstream media has repurposed precisely the kind of shock effects that are so radical here for precisely the opposite purpose - one cannot watch cable-news coverage of the cyclone in Myanmar, for instance, without being bludgeoned with images of dead children. If the media of the 1960's aimed to pacify and distract the public, it now aims to shock us into apathy; as Watkins' uses shocking images to provoke reflection and debate, the co-opting of his aesthetic without any representational distance to silence us is infuriating. Perhaps this is why the most disturbing aspect of The War Game to this contemporary viewer is the omnipresent narration, calmly listing off names and numbers and figures against images of pure horror as if any truth could be found in statistics, reminding us repeatedly of what could be and might be and has been, the dryly informative approach only increasing our anxiety. If The War Game couldn't have been more prescient when it was made, it remains relevant for its deeper, more enduring horror - the constant barrage of information in the absence of real truth.

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