Sundance 2009 Review: In the Loop
If you want to take the temperature of a culture’s tolerance for dissent (or its sense of humor), take a look at its TV programming. Despite some high watermarks on film (Dr. Strangelove, The Candidate, Wag the Dog, Bob Roberts, Bulworth), televisual political satire has a spotty, uneven history in the States, where our hallowed myths of origin and reverence for the highest office in the land tends to diminish our razzy sense of humor. In the Bush years, the popularity of faux-news programs The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Stephen Colbert Report at least signaled a healthy flourishing of intelligent, no-holds-barred Beltway mockery among a hipper demographic, a much-needed corrective to the fawning reverence of Aaron Sorkin’s earnest, long-running series, The West Wing, which epitomized the genuflecting American attitude toward the Oval Office and made the corridors of Washington power seethe with the angsty, sanctimonious aura of empyrean moral authority. The Brits, however, have always had a keener sense of the quotidian absurdity at the heart of Whitehall and Windsor Palace, as well as a robust tradition of lampooning their bewigged and powdered heads of state, dating all the way back to Jonathan Swift, the master of satire in English. Wit, moreover, is a bedrock trait in everyday English conversation, media chatter, and the deliberations of their spirited, often raucous Houses of Parliament, which make our blandly courteous, dull-as-paste Congressional confabs look as wack as an insurance-salesmen’s trade conference.
Sharp, savage, cynical, frenetically paced, and uproariously on the mark, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop fits squarely in this Britannic mold, and was easily the most entertaining film I saw at Sundance. It’s also one of the smartest political farces I can recall in years, pitting nasty, ambitious office moles and bureaucratic boneheads from Downing Street and Capitol Hill against each other in a caustic game of vulgar insults, backstabbing, double-dealing, and macho oneupmanship on the road to an unnamed, U.S.-led war in the Middle East. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is a flip-flopping U.K. cabinet minister whose incautious remark to the media about war being “unforeseeable” sets bullying Scottish Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (the incredibly arch Peter Capaldi) into a tizzy. As the prime minister’s relentlessly condescending, foul-mouthed bulldog and spin doctor, he wants Foster to toe the line and get behind the administration’s support for engagement. Foster, meanwhile, barred from all future media appearances, embarks on a fact-finding mission to Washington, with newbie advisor Toby (Chris Addison) in tow. Stateside, Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy Mary Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) is engaged in a tussle with hawkish boss Linton Barwick (David Rasche), pressing the oily assistant secretary for details on the secret war committee he insists does not exist. General Miller (James Gandolfini), her ursine anti-war ally at the Pentagon, thinks they can use the hapless, putatively peace-loving Foster as a wedge to gum up the proceedings at the euphemistically named, not-so-clandestine “Future Planning Committee.” But he’s not the most reliable type. It all devolves into a comical roundelay of press leaks, physical threats, cross-continental bed hopping, and egg-in-the-face humiliation.
An offshoot of the award-winning TV series The Thick of It, which co-writer/director Iannucci developed for the BBC, In the Loop has a freewheeling, documentary-style aesthetic and a rabidly funny conversational idiom that link it closely to The Office, though with obviously more pointed targets in mind. Capaldi’s bilious character is one of the only holdovers from the original series, and he is in many ways the star of the film, firing off a fusillade of angry, aggressively impudent putdowns in nearly every scene he’s in. But this is an Altman-esque ensemble production, and the cast of players—especially Kennedy and Gandolfini, who finally gets a choice role that buries any lingering memories of Tony Soprano—are clearly at ease improvising dialogue and reactions for maximal comic effect. Peppered with tart throwaway lines (“Fuckity bye, then”) and a few Rumsfeld-esque aphorisms (“In the land of truth, the man with one fact is king”), In the Loop takes the piss out of Bush/Blair-era governance, making the avalanche of equivocations and half-truths that define those administrations, perhaps more than any other, every bit as absurd and contemptible as they sounded to rational people during their tenure. An update on the classic screwball comedy with razor-sharp teeth—think Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, for starters—In the Loop is a sprawling farce mined with sarcastic, over-the-top one-liners. See it when IFC releases the film later this year. You’ll thank me after you snot yourself laughing.