In the Loop

April 26, 2009

In The Loop

The war in Iraq is (was, to a lot of people these days) one of those events that has caused so much outrage and righteous anger you wouldn’t have expected Hollywood to fail so miserably to ride the zeitgeist of anti-war sentiment.  Several films were all released directly addressing the subject, and all were mediocre-to-just plain awful, as well as being complete box office no-shows.  The Star-Power vehicles like Lions for Lambs were talky and dull, Stop-Loss was muddled at best, and In the Valley of Elah was just horrendous (the ending still makes me shiver with disgust).   They all suffered from the same self-importance, which basically meant if you didn’t agree with the war, you might nod along and say ‘right on’ even if the depths of the conflict weren’t being explored.  If you did agree with the war, you probably left the cinema (if you went at all) by writing it off as the Hollywood Liberal Wank you knew it was going to be.  Both sides were right, and none were entertained.  Indeed, the best drama America has produced that explicitly addressed the war wasn’t a film at all, but rather the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, which wasn’t sentimental or preachy at all (indeed, it sometimes skirted the edge of being too objective).  I would venture further to say that the most gut-wrenching and affecting Iraq war parallel that was addressed was by the television series Battlestar Galactica, in which the humans were occupied by the cylons and our beloved characters moved to enact a regime of suicide-bombing to keep up resistance, weeding out the so-called ‘collaborators’ in the process.  Perhaps, like Vietnam, it will take some years of distance for Hollywood to create some brilliant and moving pieces on the subject, but in the age of high-speed communication and short attention spans, they already risk the possibility of seeming outmoded, or “soo three years ago, daaahhling.”

In come the Brits, who have not only managed to make one of the best comedies of the year, but probably the best film about the Iraq war debacle yet.  In the Loop is the feature directorial debut of UK comedy stalwart Armando Iannucci, who is responsible for some of the best comedy of the last fifteen years.  This film is a ‘cousin’ to his BBC series The Thick of It, a comedy about the press officers of the Prime Minister as well as the opposition party (think The West Wing only without idealism and with a lot of swearing).  The only major character to return (and feature prominently) is Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister’s senior press officer/spin doctor.  Many of the actors from the show return as well, but generally as different characters.  These include Chris Addison, who plays Toby, a young aide, and Olivia Poulet, here playing Suzie, Toby’s girlfriend and another low-level staffer.  Toby has just started working under the young MP Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), whose larger role is that of the Secretary of State for International Development.  The plot begins as Foster flubs an interview where he declares the seemingly innocuous statement “War is unforeseeable”, incurring the wrath of Tucker and the interest of visiting Pentagon officials.  Pressed further by journalists, Foster later states that sometimes countries must “climb the mountain of conflict”, and it’s not long before U.S. politicians hankering for a war in the Middle East seize the phrase as their new slogan.

The film moves from Britain to Washington back to Britain and finally to New York, and along the way the cast expands to include a dovish American General (James Gandolfini) who is nervous about the prospect of war that would be far more difficult than the politicians realize, a hawkish U.S. Senator who leads a war committee, a young aide who has written a damning paper on the post-war situation (Anna Chlumsky), and even a constituent of Foster’s who is having a bit of trouble with a shaky stone wall (Steve Coogan).  The way the film folds all of these characters and their seemingly inconsequential actions together into a confluence of events that brings nations to the brink of war is inspired, and any more details on the plot is best left to be experienced for yourself.

It is a biting satire, of course, and even some years out of the events that led up to the second Iraq War, it is still very relevant (watch out, Iran/Pakistan/etc…), but none of this should detract from the fact that the film achieves it’s basic function:  it is very, very funny.  I truly cannot remember a film from recent years where I laughed so much and so frequently.  On first look, it can seem that the film’s comedy derives almost solely from the one-liners, and they are excellent, but what’s really impressive is how well they manage to conjure up absurd set pieces that are very funny in their own right without drawing too much attention.  The rapid-fire insults and awkward comedy is, at times, a real misdirection by the writers and the director, and the comedy is all the better for it.  As loud and brash as the comedy can be, it is surprisingly subtle.

The relentless nature of the film also hides the fantastic performances throughout.  Peter Capaldi is a force of nature, slinging highly offensive dialogue all around, and it’s a testament to his acting that when the action lets up to allow his character a brief moment of reflection (probably the only moment of silence in the whole film), I found myself emotionally invested, as repugnant as his character is.  There really isn’t a morally decent character in the whole piece, and yet these aren’t just caricatures.   Tom Hollander’s Foster is bumbling and impotent, yes, but there is a genuine sadness and regret when he talks of how he’s doing exactly the thing he entered politics to oppose.

And I suppose that’s the crux of the film.  A few charismatic or threatening figures can sweep up everyone in politics, whether they like it or not, into the worst situations because of anything from petty rivalry to the desire for a seat at the table.  We can all look back on the Bush administration, or look forward to future world leaders, and lay the blame for the atrocities committed in the name of ‘freedom’ or whatever they choose to justify themselves to the public, but it’s the low-level people who keep the ball rolling.  In the Loop plays as an absurdist fantasy on one level, but on another level you can’t help but think that this is probably closer to the way things went down than we’d like to admit, and that’s why this is the best film about the Iraq war so far.  It doesn’t rely on saccharine melodrama or heart-tugging to convince us that the war is/was wrong.  It uses the sharp edge of comedy to imply something not-often said and yet entirely probable:  that it’s not just a war-mongering cabal of high-ranking officials that can dupe the country into war; it could just as easily be the selfish actions of political hacks that can blunder their country onto the mountain of conflict.  In the Loop is just as timely now as it would have been five years ago, which is the mark of great satire.  That it’s probably the funniest film of the year is why it will be a lasting one.

-M

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2 Responses to “In the Loop”

  1. Kevin Says:

    I said something here (http://bit.ly/XDbvI) about how seeing this was the most I remember laughing *anywhere* in recent memory. It’s totally euphoric, and once I came out I realised I hadn’t been thinking much about the politics of the film. You don’t really have much time to think, but since its message chimes more or less with my own beliefs, that isn’t too troubling. Could a more right-wing film achieve a similar effect, though?

    I like your point that the frenzy lends one of the only quiet moments greater weight; there’s another moment with Gandolfini that I think has a similar function, but you’re right that it’s because Capaldi has been a constant whirling dervish on-screen that this moment has such impact.

    (Incidentally, I’m going to watch BSG for the first time soon. Jealous?)

  2. Dave Says:

    This was the funniest film I have seen in a long while. Classic Tucker lines such as ‘fuckity-bye’ and ‘F-star-star-CUNT’ were simple yet hilarious moments. Like you say, it deals with a very heavy and potentially risky subject for a film (As we’ve seen with Lions for Lambs) yet it remains a first class peice of comedy.
    The characters were beautifully developed and all the performances were terrific. Tom Hollander’s character was my personal favourite becuase of his hilarious, yet tragic saga. You really do feel a huge amount of sympathy for the bumbling, small town MP caught in the headlights of a speeding, political juggernaut. Peter Capaldi’s performance was hilarious and offensive but truly moving towards the end.
    It offers a glimpse into the spin, rivarlies and alliances, selfishness and ambition in international politics that many films have yet to achieve.

    I also have to note: Battlestar also had it spot on! How I miss it so….


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