Thursday, August 27, 2009

In the Loop

Director Armando Iannucci describes In the Loop, a spinoff of his BBC series The Thick of It, as an "anti-West Wing" in that it presents political bustle without the glamor of idealism. I, however, think it shares a closer analogue with another television series, The Office. It's hard not to think of Ricky Gervais' landmark series as hand-held cameras zip through the offices of staffers and less prominent yet still important members of both the British and American governments, and the film's protagonist, Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), suffers from the same foot-in-mouth disease that perennially hampers David Brent. The thing is, when David Brent fouled up, he didn't aid the start of the Iraq War.

Foster sets off a media storm when he says in an interview that war, specifically the possibility of an upcoming war in Iraq, is "unforeseeable." He immediately reports to Director of Communications Malcolm Turner (Peter Capaldi, one of two characters from the original series to appear), a blisteringly profane Scot who tells Foster he better shape up and "walk the line." So Foster should have said war was foreseeable, then. Well, no, not really. Poor Simon never finds out what he should have said, but Malcolm will make damn sure that Foster says it.

The Prime Minister dispatches Foster to the U.S. to discuss the war with American strategists and to determine what course of action the U.S. will take. When he arrives with his sarcastic but obsequious assistant Toby (Chris Addison, who was actually in The Thick of It but in a different role), Simon finds himself even more out of his depth than usual. Soon, he finds himself stretched and bent to fit the agenda of both Malcolm, who has orders with the PM to work with the State Department, and a group of anti-war officials within the U.S. government, led by Asst. Secretary of State Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and Maj. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini). One of Clarke's aides, Liza (Anna Chlumsky), wrote a report detailing the minimal, vague pros and the substantial cons of an invasion, but when Clarke actually uses it to prove her point Liza begins to fear for her career.

If Iannucci and his team of writers (ported over from the show) aimed to remove the hope and optimism of The West Wing, they filled the cracks with biting, deeply funny cynicism. When Linton Barwick (David Rasche), another assistant secretary of state, receives the notes from Clarke's meeting with the British, he completely rewrites the notes to omit the opposition voiced against the invasion and comes up with an entirely positive new version, fixating on poor Simon's idiot mumbling about "climbing the mountain of victory" as a catchphrase for the invasion. Compared to the free-floating vulgarity of everyone else, Barwick disdains swearing and makes a point never to curse or even raise his voice. Yet the eagerness with which he pursues an invasion without a second thought to the human cost makes him far, far more offensive than Turner. White House officials are revealed to be fresh out of college; Tucker follows a young man to a meeting until he realizes that the boy is not an assistant but an advisor meant to brief him, at which point he flies into a terrific fit. They pluck these kids from college because they can feed these officials agendas without having to worry about opposition from a "kid."

But what makes In the Loop so great isn't necessarily its satire: it's the dialogue. Lines fly as though someone played a Sorkin show on fast-forward. It's a bellyaching, borderline poetic rush of swearing and vitriol and pettiness, all against the backdrop of what was, or should have been, the biggest political decisions of our generation. I know that BBC shows can get away with a few f-bombs after "watershed" (9 p.m.), but there's just no way that a character like Turner could be used to his fullest on government-sponsored television. His insults are such a lyrical jumble of pop culture references and unspeakable vulgarity delivered through a brogue that is nearly incomprehensible when he's pissed off, which is almost every second he's on-screen, that you almost want to close your eyes and sway to the rhythm of their crass music.

The actors, to their credit, don't miss a beat. Tom Hollander is primarily known in America for his role as Mr. Collins in Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice as well as his sadistic imperialist Beckett in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, but he is so effortlessly funny here. In one scene, he's riding to the next war meeting, now just a perfunctory task in the face of an inevitable invasion, and he ponders resignation. Then he manages to convince himself, with only slight supplication from Toby, that not resigning and "getting on with it" would somehow be braver than resigning for his ideals. The other The Thick of It star to make it in the film is Paul Higgins' Jamie MacDonald, who has a similar yet less important job than Malcolm but makes up for it by being even more aggressive, bordering on psychotic. When Liza's memo leaks to the press, he searches for the leak in his office and destroys a fax machine simply to coax the truth out of a terrified staffer.

Even the supporting characters are great. Simon's other aide, Judy, is played by Gina McKee, who has been working under Tucker since before Foster was elected and will stay there after he leaves. She finds herself always scrambling to clean up Simon's mess while being the only person who can withstand Tucker's withering barbs. Steve Coogan also pops up for a great cameo as an outraged constituent who hounds Foster about a crumbling wall while Simon has much bigger issues to muck up.

Iannucci manages to splash some cold water on us at the end, not through proselytizing or obviousness but with a cold reminder that this, or something like it, actually happened. He never tells us why Barwick is so gung-ho for the war, but then we never got a good reason in real life, either. At a certain point we're told that the PM has basically thrown Britain's support behind America before a decision's even been made, so these Ministry underlings must follow party lines and essentially take orders from Americans. A few weeks ago I saw The Hurt Locker, the most honest and gripping cinematic depiction of the Iraq War yet seen, and this in many ways is a foil for that film. Where Bigelow's movie is a front-line portrayal of the war, In the Loop captures the petty, lying suits who put those men and women on the front lines in the first place.

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