In The Loop

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Anticipation surrounding Armando Iannucci’s film directing debut has been high, as befits arguably the most influential man in British comedy over the last two decades, and In The Loop exceeds almost all of those expectations.

Expanding the bumbling incompetence and ruthless back-stabbing of his BBC political satire The Thick of It from Whitehall to Washington in the lead-up to a proposed war, the film presents a panorama of the corridors of power that nevertheless appear frighteningly narrow, with ‘foetus-faced‘, twentysomething bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic dictating policy and manipulating their political masters’ allegiances on the fly in overcrowded offices, car back seats and bathrooms. The buildings are merely better furnished in America and the chief agitator for war employs an unexploded hand grenade as a paperweight.

Although the film’s inspiration is obvious, the details of the impending conflict with an unnamed Middle Eastern nation are almost entirely incidental. Iannucci and co-writers Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche expend zero energy upon lampooning George W Bush or Tony Blair, focusing their attention instead on the banal evils of fact handling and data massaging of a dodgy dossier. Tom Hollander, as ineffectual ‘meat puppet’ British minister Simon Foster, flip-flops across both sides of the argument while committing an ongoing stream of gaffes, initiating the story by announcing ‘war is unforeseeable’ just as Downing Street is trying to downplay the imminence of invasion on one hand, while fully supporting America’s endeavour on the other.

Although Iannucci and company have clearly done their research on Washington’s morally compromising backroom machinations – for the Future Planning Committee, aka, the war committee, the minutes of a meeting are a mutable ‘aide memoire’ rather than a record of what actually happened – and the satire chimes with a depressing ring of authenticity, the dark spark that keeps the film so consistently funny is Peter Capaldi, reprising his role as psychotic spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker.

Indeed, another new cast member, Gina McKee, seems to have been introduced merely as a fresh hate sponge for Tucker’s ire, her icily defensive policy adviser inciting him to poetically splenetic heights of rage.

Still, Iannucci invites a feeling throughout that Tucker is out of his league, running out of breath but not brutal expletives across the US capital to alternately press or postpone the case for war, with the audience’s sympathy for this devil often turning to unabashed admiration at the depth of his cunning and poisonous resources.

One of the film’s most memorable scenes is an alpha male confrontation between Tucker and James Gandolfini’s doveish US General Miller in a canteen, the pair swapping insults with all the controlled zing of classic American screwball comedy, yet all the barely suppressed violence of primed nuclear warheads.

Gandolfini clearly relishes playing against type with his usual charismatic menace lurking beneath. As with all the new additions to the cast he slots in seamlessly, although David Rasche as the war-mongering Secretary of State threatens to steal his brooding thunder at every confrontation. Hollander, though watchable is an essentially passive vessel for misfortune and certainly no Chris Langham, conveying confused resignation as his career is systematically destroyed by minds superior to his own, as opposed to mixing it up with the batsqueaks of terror and occasional pique that Langham tended to emit around Capaldi. It’s a pointless yet almost inescapable reaction to wonder how the disgraced actor might have fared in such exalted company.

Steve Coogan’s cameo as an irate berk complaining about his mother’s wall in Foster’s Northampton constituency recalls his better observed, one-off social misfits in The Day Today, while Chris Addison, returning as oily policy wonk Toby, his Olly Reeder character in all but name, is as unctuously good as ever, the compulsions of his loins and sleazy ambition conspiring to seal his boss’ fate. Paul Higgins also returns to claim some choice lines and smash a fax machine to smithereens as Tucker’s lieutenant Jamie, handling his victims with kid gloves, allegedly made from the real thing.

Rather like The Thick of It after Langham departed, In The Loop is arguably too reliant on Capaldi’s tour-de-force portrayal of Tucker, not least when for a tantalising moment the snarling enforcer hesitates, eyes watering, on the brink of career ruin, his hastily assembled house of cards threatening to collapse.

The increased feature budget hasn’t been splashed on the film’s look, which retains the hand-held intimacy of the series, give or take a few outdoor shots around Washington in keeping with Foster’s insignificance as a minnow out of his depth. Unsurprisingly too perhaps, the rougher, improvised aspects have been smoothed slightly for this grander canvas. The performances feel more scripted.

Nevertheless, the bigger political stakes have inspired the writing to another level. One scene, in which General Miller estimates the likely troop casualties of a war with his State Department ally on a toy calculator in a child’s bedroom stands comparison with the war room scenes in Doctor Strangelove, such is its cartoonishly savage absurdity.

Familiarity with The Thick of It should be no pre-requisite for enjoying In The Loop, although confirmed fans will doubtless enjoy the little nods, such as erstwhile cast member and stand-up Will Smith’s fleeting appearance at the end. One can only hope that Iannucci is now given the opportunities and resources to bring his brilliant wit to bear on cinema more regularly.

Reviewed by: Jay Richardson
Glasgow Film Festival

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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