Although its quasi-documentary look makes Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop stylistically dissimilar, thematically it resembles nothing so much as a blend of the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008) and Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2006). It boasts something of the political humor of the former (albeit in a much less benign way) and the pitch-black “we’re all basically screwed” attitude of the latter. This is not a nice movie. It cuts directly into the bone of the corruption of politics on every conceivable level. Oh, it’s very funny—there mayn’t have been a funnier screenplay this year—but the laughs are bitter ones, born of the realization that there’s nothing else you can do but laugh at the grotesque mockery of it all.
The film has received almost universal acclaim from critics (it boasts a 94 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and more surprisingly has played to receptive audiences who seem in tune with its dark humor. On my first viewing, it took me about 20 minutes to get into the film, since it is unclear at the beginning where the film is going. At first it seemed like a great deal of swearing—especially from Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, a behind-the-scenes man in British politics, who seems determined to confirm the suspicion that there’s a stiff fine for any Scotsman who crafts a sentence without some variation of “f*ck” in it—to no discernible point. But the further I got into the movie, the clearer its point became—and the grimmer and funnier the film came to be.
It all starts with a magnificently ineffectual cabinet member, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander, Valkyrie), who has a spectacular knack for saying the wrong thing in public—in this case his claim that “war is unforeseeable,” which is not in keeping with Tucker’s party line. It is, however, useful to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clarke (TV actress Mimi Kennedy), who thinks his bumbling nattering makes him an ally in her opposition to an impending war. The problem is that Foster really has no clue about much of anything (though he’s very concerned that his assistant has control of the blinds in his glass office) and will soon say something else that makes him appear to be pro-war.
The complex, multilayered and many-charactered story line is all about the convoluted political jockeying and power games that go on behind the scenes. The movie exists in a world where reports are doctored to reflect not what was said but “what was intended to have been said.” It’s a world where secret committees to start a war are formed and hidden under deceptively boring names, and one where one of the biggest players, Linton Barwick (David Rasche, Burn After Reading), cavalierly dismisses information that undermines his personal agenda by saying, “We don’t need any more facts. In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is king.” The film goes to some lengths to prove that in the game of politics, he’s absolutely right.
There’s scarcely a false note in the entire film as it winds its way through the machinations, blackmailings, diversions and distractions that lead to pushing a war through—a war that, according to General George Miller (James Gandolfini), is unwinnable. He puts the casualties of soldiers at the level of the soldiers available, and as he puts it, “At the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.” But reality doesn’t matter in In the Loop and loyalty simply doesn’t exist. It’s all politics as usual, meaning—among other things—that there are no friends and no enemies, just a series of uneasy alliances that serve the interest of the moment.
The dialogue crackles with wit and cleverly turned phrases—along with every swear word known to humanity. The performances are all up to the dialogue. There aren’t any clunkers here, but Peter Capaldi’s splendidly ghastly political mastermind outshines them all. It’s not the kind of blistering performance that wins awards, but it really ought to. Listen to it all carefully—and be sure to stay through the credits with their off-to-the-side vignettes, including a great joke about (believe it or not) I Heart Huckabees. Not rated, but contains almost nonstop language, adult themes and sexual content.