In The Loop enters theatres with so many strikes against it, it is hard to imagine the film finding any audience at all. It’s a British comedy, with all the thick accents and obscure references that entails. It’s an Iraq war movie, three words that are interchangeable with “box office poison.” It’s a cinematic sequel to a TV series you probably missed.
Yet In The Loop has one asset that should recommend it to everyone: it’s really funny. As a bonus, it’s a whip-smart satire on the way government works, or doesn’t, both in London and in Washington.
Directed by Armando Iannucci, In The Loop takes the premise of his 2005-2007 BBC series The Thick of It one step further. The TV series was about the point in British politics where government action and strategic communication meet, usually with disastrous consequences. So it’s not so much about what government does as it is about the public relations staffers in cabinet ministers’ offices trying to explain what government does—or, if need be, to cover it up. The show’s most prominent figures are Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi), the prime minister’s foul-mouthed, ruthless and none-too-effective communications director, and a younger PR staffer (Chris Addison), who tries to do Tucker’s bidding without losing his last remaining scraps of idealism. Government ministers occasionally appear, but they are essentially bystanders who barely understand what’s going on.
In The Loop takes this premise to the world stage. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a hapless cabinet minister—there being no other kind—speculates in front of an open microphone about the likelihood of the United States and Britain going to war in the Middle East. His anodyne comments provoke a public furor, and Malcolm Tucker is dispatched from the prime minister’s office to do damage control. (“That’s not our line. Walk the f–king line.”) At a second scrum, minister Foster tries to take his quote back. But of course he only makes it worse. “To walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict.” Not good. “You sound like a Nazi Julie Andrews!” laments Tucker. The minister is dispatched across the pond to Washington to smooth ruffled Yankee feathers.
But not everyone in the United States capital is pro-war. Foster’s serial incoherence leads both the hawk and dove factions in the U.S. to seize on him as a potentially useful idiot. Hijinks ensue. This trans-Atlantic junket could have let all the air out of In The Loop’s masterful portrayal of British gutter politics, but it doesn’t—it ends up giving the movie a kind of depth the television series never actually had. Iannucci and his writers have made a close study of politics in Washington, and they’re very canny in depicting all the ways it varies from the way things work at Westminster.
The most obvious difference is the importance of the military, personified in In the Loop by a barrel-chested army general played by James Gandolfini. To the extent that this movie’s fictional conflict is a stand-in for the invasion of Iraq, then Gandolfini is the Colin Powell figure, a dove where you never thought you’d find one. But Gandolfini’s character is outmatched on all sides, beaten at strategy by Washington’s hawks and at potty-mouthed excess by the visiting Malcolm Tucker.
This is a gloriously foul-mouthed film. Iannucci and his writers use an outside “swearing consultant” to ensure the tirades are sufficiently varied. Which is odd, because people who follow politics in any capital know well that swearing is one thing political staffers everywhere can do without hiring a consultant.
Like the movie it most resembles, Barry Levinson’s 1997 film Wag The Dog, In The Loop doesn’t have any particularly keen insights into the nature of politics because it doesn’t need any. Politics isn’t that subtle. It doesn’t require insight, only a kind of exhausted resignation. It is freighting In The Loop with too much significance to say it is trying to make a point about war. It really isn’t: it’s just a romp, and a consistently funny one, too. But if it has an argument, it’s that in 2003 the opponents and skeptics of war stuck with truth and verifiable fact, which kept them bogged down while war’s advocates had no such burden. It’s probably not conflict that Iannucci’s hapless cabinet minister finds himself in, but it’s a mountain of something, all right.