In the Loop
West Wing Meets The Office
Monday, August 17, 2009
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando discusses "In the Loop"
I did a radio Film Chat about “In the Loop” (opened July 31 at Landmark’s Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Cinemas) when the film opened but failed to post anything before I left for a trip back East. But since the film is so good and is still playing, I thought better late than never…
“In the Loop” has been described as “The West Wing” meets BBC’s “The Office," and that provides a fairly accurate assessment of what to expect. It replaces the office setting with that of international politics, and delivers a faux documentary fueled by scathing, deadpan humor.
The plot of “In the Loop” essentially hinges on a single word, and that’s part of its genius. It starts so simply and then spins wildly out of control. It all begins with Malcolm Tucker (a brilliant Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, who’s concerned about what Simon Foster (Tom Hollander of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame), the Minister for International Development, might say in an upcoming interview. Foster is asked about the war on diarrhea in the third world and then he’s blindsided by a question about a very different war, the one the U.S. might wage in the Middle East. Foster casually answers that war is “unforeseeable.” Tucker can’t believe what he hears and he runs off in a frenzy of damage control.
Tucker cancels all of Foster’s public appearances and insists he stick to the party line: War is neither foreseeable, nor unforeseeable. Foster valiantly tries to save face by putting a new spin on his “unforeseeable” quote, and tells the press, "To walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict.” That prompts his critics to label him “a Nazi Julie Andrews.” In no time at all, a warmongering American politician, an anti-war American general, a female U.S. State Department diplomat, a host of aides and a dissatisfied constituent (Steve Coogan in a stellar cameo) are spinning out of control in this masterfully orchestrated political comedy.
This is the kind of savvy political comedy we haven’t seen since “The Candidate” and Robert Altman’s “Tanner ’88.” It’s funny, sharply written, and pointed in its commentary about the ineptitude of people at the top who are making decisions that affect the world. This is not sitcom style jokes but something much smarter and with a purpose. The use of language here is wicked fun. Peter Capaldi’s Tucker spews an unrelenting stream of inventive obscenities that never cease to amuse while a pair of American political aides miss no opportunity to verbally spar and abuse each other. Then there are just clever bits like this anti-war statement from the American general (played by Mr. Soprano himself James Gandolfini.) He explains his opposition to war like this, “Once you’ve been there, you never want to go again unless you absolutely have to. It’s like France.” Line after line proves a delight and it’s so refreshing to have a literate script where words are like weapons and events can hinge on the turn of a phrase.
The mad, talented people responsible for this film are writer-director Armando Iannucci and the writing crew of Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin and Tony Roche. Iannucci was also responsible for the BritComs “Alan Patridge” and “The Thick of It.” Neither of which I have seen and both of which I need to seek out based on how much I enjoyed “In the Loop.” Iannucci has done a lot of television but “In the Loop” marks his feature film debut. He makes the transition well, delivering a film that moves fast, creates a gallery of hilarious characters, and skewers those at the top. He gives us politicians who are so worried about their careers and one-upping their opponent that they have completely lost sight of serving the people or pursuing any higher ideals. As those of us on the West Coast see our California Legislature struggle with the budget crisis, this film allows us to laugh at the horrible mess politicians sometimes get themselves and all of us into. The film pokes fun at the absurdity and incompetence found at the top. So sometimes you may find yourself laughing heartily but then feeling a sting of reality.
“In the Loop” (unrated but for mature audiences because of language) delivers a near nonstop riot of bumbling, egotistical politicians and their overstressed aides all engaged in a game that has very real consequences for the rest of the world. At one point the U.S. diplomat uses a kiddie computer to calculate the casualties of the potential war and pauses to note that there have to be some troops left standing at the end or else it looks bad – no thought is given to the tens of thousands that might be harmed or displaced by any conflict. In the end, Iannucci delivers a forceful and feverishly funny indictment of warmongering politicians and people who are more concerned with appearances and putting the right spin on things than on communicating effectively and doing the right thing. Maybe they should hold a screening of this film in Washington and see if anyone can learn something from it.
Companion viewing: “The Candidate,” “Tanner ’88,” “Dr. Strangelove”