The release a few months ago of an American chase-thriller called Edge of Darkness brought to mind the 1985 Edge of Darkness: a BBC film originally shown in six parts, and one of the best political thrillers ever in any medium. Diversely admirable energies went into it: a script by Troy Kennedy Martin, music by Eric Clapton, direction by Martin Campbell (who also directed the Bourne-like version of 2009); and performances equal to any of that decade, by Bob Peck and Joe Don Baker. A fine thing about the movie was that it required thought.

Indeed, the subject of the 1985 Edge of Darkness was the difficulty of thinking about the motives that exert a constant control on life and death in the modern state. Recent ways of Hollywood filmmaking don’t allow much for thought: cuts every two-to-three seconds, steadicam in almost perpetual motion. There are long spans for meditation in the older film and very few chases. The quarry is not a villain but an evil that inhabits no single person.

Ronnie Craven, a Yorkshire police detective, picks up his 20-year-old daughter, Emma, at a left-wing gathering at her college, and when they get home in the rain, going up the steps under an umbrella, they hear his name called out by an angry voice. She lunges to protect him and a man fires both barrels of a shotgun. Later as Craven broods on her killing, he wonders: his name was called, but she ran forward – why? He finds a gun in her bedroom and, more strangely, a Geiger counter. He finds its ticking is set off by a lock of her hair given to him by the pathologist. She was more deeply involved in anti-nuclear actions than he realised.

The murder leads Craven back to a larger crime of concealment. There was a ‘hot cell’ inside a mine called Northmoor where work had gone forward illegally refining nuclear materials. Emma was part of a team that invaded the mine, by way of its tunnels; the management flooded them and only Emma survived. Through his own investigation, Craven is accompanied by the ghost of his daughter – a piece of plotting that on first view seems adventitious, but an intuitive touch which is pursued to the end with a daring literalism. For Emma’s daylight ghost speaks and talks no differently from the daughter who died. A suggestion permeates all of Edge of Darkness that, as nothing finally vanishes of material things, so nothing is lost of spiritual traces. Our acts leave their footprints like the deposits we leave on the earth and in the air.

The understory is the friendship between the Yorkshire detective (Bob Peck) and the Texas CIA man Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker) who began and bankrolled Emma’s group. The solemnity of Craven is rounded and given at last to share a humour with the fearless aplomb of Jedburgh; and in the course of the pursuit, as they bring to light the British seller and American buyer of the illegal facility, you are struck by the combination of interests – blind to each other and opaque to an outside view – that converge in making such a disaster. You realise by the end that every non-criminal who knew about Northmoor had something to hide. A lawyer put onto the case to dredge up the specific violations is told that the Ministry of Defence knew of them all along. ‘But I don’t understand. I mean, if you knew what caused the contamination, why was I called in to investigate it? You must have known I would find out what was going on in the end.’ ‘Yes of course I did. I just thought you might take a little longer.’

The Deepwater Horizon blowout and BP oil spill, now starting its work of destruction on the coastal wetlands of Louisiana, was another case of industry money and government collusion indifferent to the public welfare. We are just now learning that BP was allowed to drill without detailed environmental analysis; and that the permissive morale of the administrators in control of oil at the Department of the Interior scarcely altered in the transition from Cheney-Bush to Obama. Also, that the new secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, was not a clever appointment, after all, because he is ‘ethnic’ and comes from the Mountain West. He was all but a lobbyist for the oil industry.

Things come out little by little and only when forced by disaster. Installation of the remote control shutoff device used by the rest of the world was a requirement jettisoned by Cheney and Bush as superfluous and expensive. This protection would have cost $500,000 – a fraction of the CEO’s annual salary at BP. The drilling itself, a mile under the earth’s crust beneath six miles of water, in the days just before the explosions had met with pockets of natural gas forcing their way back up the drilling pipe. The men on the rig were told to go ahead; the government controllers only said to use caution. And the seal in the pipe was cemented in place by Halliburton – Cheney’s company.

On the same pattern as Hurricane Katrina, the government waited many days before committing itself to play a role in proximity to the disaster. Easier to take BP’s word that no great trouble was brewing. So, an administration that recently broke a decade of resistance to announce its openness to exploration for offshore drilling finds itself in charge of the restitution of livelihoods destroyed by offshore drilling. There is also a new openness to nuclear energy. Meanwhile the toxic exhaust of oil goes into the air and waste from nuclear plants goes into the ground in containers that have to be insulated against earthquakes and seepage for thousands of years – or else launched into space.

The consolation of Edge of Darkness was that something of earth would survive if only in the form of ghosts and black flowers. Yet a time can come when ‘greeds/ And garbage are too thick-strewn’, as Larkin wrote in ‘Going, Going’, ‘To be swept up now, or invent/Excuses that make them all needs.’ There must be people along the coast of Louisiana who feel certain that their way of life is gone.

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Vol. 32 No. 12 · 24 June 2010

In my Short Cuts about the BP oil disaster, I said the drilling went ‘a mile under the earth’s crust beneath six miles of water’ (LRB, 27 May). A more nearly correct figure would have been ‘three and a half miles under the earth’s crust, beneath a mile of water’.

David Bromwich
New Haven, Connecticut

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