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Bigger Longer Uncut: The Annotated Movie Column
The Brain in Ukraine

Loop-De-Loop!

  • 7/22/09 at 9:39 PM
Courtesy of IFC Films

Courtesy of IFC Films

All hail great satire: Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop is a riotous transcontinental political farce, a policy-wonk answer to The Front Page with characters jetting back and forth between London and Washington and enough scatological invective to make David Mamet say, “Whoa — that’s over the line.” The most outlandish thing about this sleeper comedy is its accuracy: From what we can glean, this is pretty much what happened in the days leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the Brits were drafted to supply bogus intel to help the Cheney administration make its case to the U.N. Security Council. Ianucci uses characters from his BBC comedy In the Thick of It, starring Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, a relentlessly abusive Scottish government communications chief based on Alastair Campbell, who did the same job for Tony Blair. But his principal inspiration is the leaked Downing Street memo, which reported that the U.S. was determined to go to war and that “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” This is the story of The Fix That Was In. At least the funny parts: The tragedy would come later, after “Mission Accomplished.”

From the start it’s clear the language of politics is entirely divorced from meaning. Malcolm is listening to a radio interview with a dopey minor government minister, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) who stammers something about war in the Middle East being “unforeseeable.” And as harmless as that locution seems, it drives the Prime Minister (whose name is not uttered in the film) and his executioner, Malcolm, into obscenity-laced fits of apoplexy. You’d hardly recognize Capaldi from his most famous movie role, as Peter Riegert’s lovelorn Scottish assistant in the sublime 1983 Bill Forsyth comedy Local Hero. The cords in his neck stand out as he roars, and he shows up everywhere, fulminating, threatening, blackballing, blackmailing — political multitasking. Against him, idealists don’t stand a chance — and neither does Simon, who tries to backpedal from that “unforeseeable” line but does enjoy being treated like what he says matters. He gets drafted as an ally by the dovish U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), who’s locked in a battle with the hawkish state department official Linton Barwick, based on top Cheney aide David Addington and embodied with delicious smug pomposity by David Rasche, who hasn’t been this funny since Sledge Hammer.

The huge cast plays it deadly straight but at farcical speeds, leaping back and forth from the minutiae of protocol to problems with their teeth to one-night stands to leaking documents or plugging leaks. In the Loop’s loopy ensemble includes the pert Anna Chlumsky as Clarke’s policy aide who drafts a highly inconvenient paper on the prospect of war in which the cons dwarf the pros, and James Gandolfini as an alpha-male general who’s nonetheless dead-set against war, being the only person around who has seen men die in battle. Chris Addison as a half-cunning, half-ingenuous young spin doctor, Gina Mckee as a press secretary who lets the abuse roll off her, James Smith as a Scottish political hit-man even more volcanic than Capaldi’s Malcolm, Zach Woods as a young Republican arse-licker — these and others are stupendous. But it was Mimi Kennedy — best known as Dharma’s mom on the sitcom Dharma and Greg — who blew me away. You can see the wheels in her head turning: She's an idealist who’s also a political animal — her heart palpably quickens at the prospect of confrontation.

A few priss-pot critics have dismissed In the Loop for being too cynical, too wedded to the idea that politicians and policy-makers are either hopelessly ineffectual or downright venal. Did they live through the Cheney-Bush administration? Did they watch Colin Powell make his case to the U.N.? Did they read the reporting of Judith Miller with her distantly-glimpsed sham weapons expert? Did they watch as the so-called congressional opposition rolled over and played dead? Did they track the disappearance of billions in Iraq as money went to twentysomething Republican loyalists who didn’t know a word of the language, not to mention how to control traffic or keep the electrical grid functioning — or to “no-bid-for-us” Halliburton and its corrupt subsidiaries? Did they see how the pre-verbal Bush pulled the strings on his puppet Tony Blair, who could speak with the pear-shaped-vowels of international diplomacy? More to the point, did they ever see the great cynical comedies Duck Soup or Dr. Strangelove or even Mamet's Wag the Dog with their shills and stooges and dismaying body counts?

Ianucci and his writers don’t depict the war’s principal architects or even mention Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, or Colin Powell. Instead, we see their minions in a kind of kabuki ritual, going through the motions, actors in a theater of the absurd, as poignant as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with their fates predetermined. In the Loop demonstrates how penetrating farce can be: madcap on the surface, and underneath brutally and uncompromisingly sane.

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