Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review - In the Loop

In Armando Iannucci's
In the Loop, the utterance of the single word "unforeseeable" has, well, unforeseeable consequences. The man responsible is Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the Minister for International Development, who uses that phrase to describe the possibility of a military intervention in the Middle East. Having already blundered by deviating from the official government line, Foster then compounds his error when he is asked to clarify his position by TV reporters, and the flustered politician mumbles, "To walk the road of peace, sometimes we must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict." Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), Downing Street's director of communications, is not amused: "Climb the mountain of conflict?" he rages, "You sound like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews!"

Fans of
The Thick of It, Iannucci's brilliant political sitcom, will be instantly at home in this milieu, as most of the cast members from that shows are present here, with almost all of them taking on slightly altered roles. The exception, of course, is Peter Capaldi, who once again plays Malcolm Tucker with all of the aggression and spite he can muster. The (unseen) Prime Minister's chief attack dog, Tucker is one of the great comic creations of recent years; a vicious master of spin who uses profanity as punctuation, and will not rest for a second until he has annihilated whatever unfortunate victim has incurred his wrath. "I will marshal all the media forces of darkness to hound you to an assisted suicide" he vows at one point, and Capaldi's snarling turn is so convincing you instantly believe he's willing and capable of carrying out his many threats. Along with his equally volatile aide Jamie (Paul Higgins) – described as "The crossest man in Scotland," – Tucker is an all-too-real monster.

But while Tucker is unquestionably the top dog in
The Thick of It, In the Loop cleverly shifts the balance of power, setting him against the world of American politics, a setting that almost lands him out of his depth for the first time. When Foster's comments are picked up in the US, he is invited to Washington, where he finds himself caught up in a power struggle between pro and anti-war factions within the government. Iannucci's feature debut casts a satirical eye on the "special relationship" between Britain and America, depicting Foster and his young aide Toby (Chris Addison) as being terminally star-struck by Washington. They react with childlike glee during a ride in a motorcade, and they are desperate to win the approval and recognition of their American counterparts, even though diplomat Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) and General Miller (James Gandolfini) are using them as puppets and nothing else. They are reduced to hanging around outside the toilets in the hope of discovering where the war commission is due to meet – the corridors of power these are not.

Iannucci has a wonderful ability to construct such farcical scenes, which escalate with a screwball pace and inventiveness. He puts Gandolfini's general in a young girl's bedroom, working out potential troop casualties on a toy calculator ("It’s important to have some soldiers left at the end of a war, otherwise it looks like you lost"), but Iannucci always has an important point to make behind the near-constant laughter. When Simon Foster tries to convince himself that it might actually be braver to do the wrong thing, and that some wars turn out to be positive ("The Crimean war...we got a lot of nurses out of that"), we laugh at the absurdity of it, but it also has the ring of truth, highlighting the way politicians twist and turn in a ridiculous fashion to justify their actions. As played by the brilliantly hapless Hollander, Foster is a decent, honest character who is lost in the merciless political machine. He finds himself supporting a war he's morally against, and even when he claims to be on the verge of resigning in protest he seems unsure which way to go; "I'm standing my ground..." he insists hesitantly, "...on the verge."

Hollander is one of the new faces joining the established
Thick of It ensemble, and they all slip seamlessly into the groove. Gandolfini plays effectively against type as a general who has seen the horrors of war and doesn't want to go back, while David Rasche is great as the warmonger who keeps a live grenade as paperweight. There's funny support from Zach Woods and Anna Chlumsky as a pair of squabbling interns, while Steve Coogan cameos as a Paul Calf-like character from Foster's constituency, who wants someone to mend the crumbling wall in his mother's back garden. With Washington calling, Simon Foster obviously has bigger things on his mind, but Iannucci and his co-screenwriters tie the big picture to the minor details, and it's a seemingly irrelevant issue in Northampton that eventually causes the walls to fall in on the politician's world.

The one thing that might count against this superb and riotously entertaining satire is the possibility that it will appear as a film from a previous age, intent on attacking Bush era politics with a cynicism unwelcome in this time of renewed hope; but Armando Iannucci is not interested in targeting specific politicians or decisions here. Instead he is lampooning the kind of venality, self-interest, stupidity and shortsightedness that courses constantly through the veins of the political world. Even the writer/director himself would be surprised that one of his more throwaway lines – about the possibility of hotel porn appearing in a politicians expenses – has gained pertinence and knowing laughter thanks to Jacqui Smith's recent indiscretions, and that's why a picture like
In the Loop will always feel relevant and vital. There will always be cheats, fools and crooks in politics; there will always be leaders willing to sacrifice their own colleagues for personal gain; there will always be hawks and doves within the same government – and, we can be sure, there will always be a Malcolm Tucker.