Political satire is a hard nut to crack, you need to not just balance the message and insight but also find an audience smart enough and knowledgeable enough to “get it”. When done right it can create a comedy for the ages. My pick of the week, co-opted into my preachy but well intentioned “Why Haven’t You Watched…?” is not just a great example of this genre, but a benchmark by which all films of this type must be measured: In the Loop.
In the Loop is a film about war but words are the only weapons on display. A political satire that is smart, entertaining and offers not only the strongest critique of the Iraq war but serves as a rebuke to our current political structure in general. A film that unleashes a barrage of wit, obscenity and incisive political satire. In so many ways it feels like the modern day successor to Doctor Strangelove. I can think of no higher compliment.
During the buildup to military action by the United States and United Kingdom against a middle Eastern country, a low ranking British Government minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is surprised with a question on the topic during an interview with the BBC. His fateful response “war is unforeseeable” contradicts an official government stance and whips up a firestorm across both countries. With Foster digging himself deeper by making further comments to try and reverse his stance, Downing Street Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) attempts to contain the situation and repair the damage in relations by sending him to Washington D.C. along with his equally bumbling aide Tody (Chris Addison).
Foster soon finds himself taken under the wing of Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy and General Miller (James Gandolfini) who oppose the War and intend to use the hapless Minister to push their own agenda. And so, a British Member of Parliament with little real power of influence finds himself at the center of a political clusterfuck with the looming specter of war getting ever closer. There is also the matter of an unsafe wall in his backyard that is precipitously close to collapsing into his neighbor’s yard.
With the focus on the buildup to war rather than war itself, In the Loop serves as a way to showcase the innerworkings of the political machine and the Machiavellian tactics employed by those within it to further their own agenda. Aides, interns, MPs, Senators, Generals, we run the gamut of the hierarchy and how they play off each other and use each other, not just to get things done but just to remain “in the loop”. The idea that someone is in power to serve their country rather than serve themselves is quickly dispelled. People are flattered, bribed, blackmailed or bullied into a course of action. Tactics win out over ethics. It’s a spectacle that becomes increasingly ludicrous and terrifying as it continues. And this is all happening before war has even broken out.
The film also provides a contrast between these two countries, the slick operations in the US rife with opportunists and those heady with power. The UK wrapped up with more mundane affairs, Ministers and aides doing more trivial, low level stuff, facing adversity with a stiff upper lip which occasionally flaps to unleash ferocious profanity. Accordingly the naive Simon Foster is wowed by his surroundings, the trappings of the UN and Washington, which only adds to his befuddlement. His position in the middle of the pro/anti war movement allows insight into both and shows that the few who enter politics with the best intentions still get swept up by it and lose their way.
Armando Iannucci, together with writers Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche, crafted an immaculate piece of satire, fast pasted in terms of action, wit and profanity. It works as a bridge of sorts, serving as a sequel to the original BBC series The Thick of It and also as a prequel (of sorts) to the HBO series Veep. The most startling aspect is how REAL it feels, how what unfolds on screen can and probably has happened. The acting is superb, and the writing is biting and overflowing with wit. An elegantly interweaving plot showcasing a colossal political clusterfuck.
The villain (or to many, the hero) of the piece is Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). Modeled on Tony Blair’s own press secretary, Alastair Campbell, the man is a ball of frenetic insanity who seems the only one fit and able to call the bigger insanity around him out for what it is. He strides through the American halls of power and at the first instance of sensing disrespect threatens to burn the White House down. His profanity laden rants are works of art and serve as an inspiration to us all. James Gandolfini gives one of his finest performances (and delivers a hell of a zinger to the French) and it is to his credit that a host of younger actors including Zach Woods, David Rasche and Anna Chlumsky make a lasting impression too. Even the most fleeting of characters makes a memorable mark despite the frenetic nature of the film which uses a documentary style approach, quick camera panning keeping the focus on the players and their exchanges. It’s not a glossy presentation, but a fitting down and dirty vibe.
The farcical nature of the film is prevalent but it is grounded throughout by it’s references to real events. Even the film’s title is a cheeky reference to George H. W. Bush’s claim as Vice President in the early 90s that he was “out of the loop” concerning the secret Iran-Contra payments. The plot that drives the political maelstrom will be familiar to anyone with passing knowledge of the Iraq War, passing cutting commentary on the “special relationship” between the UK and US. Not just the subservience of one to the other but the bullying and sly tactics within each Government to convince its own members to vote in favor of the incursion.
Some of the content is more comedic than others, an instance of a “pros Vs. cons” war study being turned into a “pro-war” study by simply crossing out the cons is one, yet it feels like there is still a small nugget of truth there. A more sobering moment comes when Malcolm threatens to hound Simon “to an assisted suicide”. A veiled reference to David Kelly, a UN weapons inspector who ended his life after being confronted over his apparent role in beefing up Iraq’s military threat. Within context, a pun or insult in the film takes on a dramatically darker tone. The furious, inventive swearing stays in the mind but this is a meticulously researched, layered piece of work that should be properly appreciated.
While its portrayal of politics is comically chilling, In the Loop does offer a little ray of hope for us all, circling back to the small matter of that unsafe wall. It’s rare you see a civilian in the film, so immersed are we in the corridors of power, but there is one of significance, Paul (played to perfection by Steve Coogan). An irate constituent of Simon Fosters who in publicizing neglect of his own back yard, is his ultimate downfall. Despite all the political networking and maneuvering, this elected official ultimately answers to the people. A small solace while these fucknuts take us all to the brink of destruction.