In the Loop (2009)
Dir: Armando Iannucci
“Twelve thousand troops. But that's not enough. That's the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost.”
In 2009 Armando Iannucci set out to make a spin-off film from (ostensibly) his popular TV series “The Thick of It”. It would feature the main players of the TV show, including Malcolm Tucker, but also include the added American element.
This is, in my mind, the funniest, smartest, and most moving political satire since Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It is an incredibly rich and clever piece of filmmaking that seems to have slipped by the mass mainstream audience and many critics. The only major accolade it received was a nomination for best original screenplay.
Before I launch into an analysis of the themes, I would like to reiterate just how hilarious and fun this movie is. The film is effortless in its complexity and is ostensibly a straight comedy. It is not until the film is over and the viewer reflects on what he has seen that the film’s full dimensions present themselves. While watching, the viewer is caught up in the hilarious profanity, character dynamics and relationships. So don’t be put off by the semi-heavy discussion of the ideas presented by the film; it is still very gracefully watchable and immensely enjoyable. This film can very much survive as a comedy; it equals many others in recent history. However the political and personal prescience frees it from its genre shackles and propels it into the upper echelon of films period.
Generally, in comedies, the acting is not criticised as harshly, as a solid performance is less important than a funny one. But in this film the acting is more than solid. Not only is everyone hysterically funny but by the end there is enough pathos to really be effecting, even moving. Tom Hollander (my personal casting choice for Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming “The Hobbit”) is extremely touching as the MP Simon Foster. His character arc is paradoxically sad. Although he is incompetent and generally not well suited for the job, it is still hard to watch him get fired and be turned into the patsy by General Miller and Karen Clark. This is all in the performance. Peter Capaldi’s relentless performance makes the scene where he silently breaks down particularly strong and memorable. His stuttered delivery of his line says more than the line itself ever could. This calibre of acting is virtually unheard of in this genre.
The handheld camera and the way the film is shot never get in the way of the characters and story. Perhaps the ‘handy-cam feel’ of it doesn’t exactly give the film the immediacy that the style is usually utilised for, but it is not distracting at all (as it is in some films – I am looking at you, Jason Bourne) and most of the time the viewer is too busy laughing so the camerawork mostly goes unnoticed. The immediacy comes from the intense acting and the witty dialogue. We are also immediately drawn in during the title sequence which sees Toby and Tucker board the lift together and continue their respective cell pho-‘mobile phone’ conversations, both of which we have been privy to due to the wonders of cross cutting. They converge and continue in the lift forcing the viewer to listen carefully, afraid of a missed word from either conversation which they have invested in over the previous 30 or so seconds. The viewer is conditioned to focus their undivided attention, in a scene which still manages to be as funny as a mooncalf in heat.
The characterisations are also quite complex and layered. It would be very easy to show Simon Foster as a dumb bumbling idiot who knows nothing about politics and derive the laughs from the fact that he is not intelligent. However if this was the kind of character he was there would have been a remove for the audience; they would have seen him as ‘the joker’ character; that one guy in movies who is always unbelievably stupid. But Foster is not a complete imbecile and therein lies the scathing satire and poignancy. Foster knows he is incompetent; he is smart enough to understand what he does is wrong but too stupid to do anything about it. Malcolm Tucker is also much more interesting than the stereotypical “smart-mouth without a conscience”. His hubris does not allow him to lose an argument and therefore he will do anything to win. Even force someone to literally delete numerous arguments contradicting his party line. When General Miller calls him Barwick’s “gay little mercenary” Tucker becomes enraged and verbally accosts Barwick, who promptly retorts showing his authority over Tucker. Tucker, bested, finds an underling – Toby – to “physiologically maim” and a second wind to help him build a case for war (or rather deplete the case against). He accepts and moves on. This is the sequence where we see the depravity of Tucker and his occupation, and his utter professionalism. Although he hates Barwick with every fiber of his being, he still respects his authority and does everything in his power to follow his orders. Complexity is the name of the game. Mr. Cameron – please take note.
There is a point in “In the Loop” where you realise that the consequences of all of the words we’ve been laughing at are very drastic. We have chuckled at Malcolm Tucker’s “lubricated horse cock”, Jaime’s “clueless egg cunt” and Simon Foster’s “lemon difficult” but when the announcement is made that there will be war, we are hit with a profound uneasiness. Before this point the characters look smart in their suits and sound intelligent with their somewhat esoteric words. We assume that because the characters we are watching look official and use words like ‘constituents’, they know what they are talking about. The uneasiness comes from the realisation that they are no smarter than you or I and they don’t have our best interests at heart. Just because they use long words that we may not have heard before doesn’t mean they understand them. Most of the time political jargon and elaborate vocabulary mask the fact that their statements are void of any relevance. Malcolm is great at what he does; no questions about it. He is the best; the best spin doctor; the best person to argue your cause. He is so good because he never actually argues about the issue. He twists words, blackmails, forges evidence and intimidates to win arguments. In this sense he has never won an argument or debate. The reason Malcolm is this way is due to the nature of his occupation. He is not employed to make moral decisions. There are other, unseen, people who do that. Malcolm’s job is to argue their case, strike that – not argue but to win their case. His employers don’t want him to actually debate whether the UK should go to war or not, they want him to convince people that they should.
There is a valuable lesson to be learned from “In the Loop” that applies for all who watch it – not just those in politics. The universality of the message transcends the films political connections and references and elevates the film to heights few other films have soared over the past ten years. We see a selection of characters argue throughout the entire film. They yell and swear and insult but never do they actually discuss if they should go to war or not. They never discuss the plethora of lives that will be lost, the effect of the war on the American and UK citizens. Even in the few instances where they discuss the ramifications of war (as in the quote that opened this review), the discussion revolves around the way that the given department, or minister, will be perceived by the media and his constituents. The film is about whether the US and UK should go to war, the dialogue, however, is never concerned with the pros and cons of waging a war. The dialogue has characters call each other names, blackmail, cheat and lie in order to make the side they are arguing for look good and the opposition look bad (notice – not look wrong). Don’t be fooled - this happens outside of politics as well. Everyone has been in an argument (whether they will admit it or not) that reached the point where one brings into question the character of the person one is arguing with. The reason being, if they are a cocksucker, their opinion must be wrong, right? No matter what they are saying. It is at this point that nothing will get resolved. If the conversation has devolved into juvenile name calling it is best to walk away if your goal is to debate something seriously – as should be done in politics. Yet these people do nothing but name call and intimidate, which brings to mind the idiom “war does not determine who is right, only who is left.” The characters in “In the Loop” aren’t arguing to determine who is right only, who argues the best. And these are the people that control the majority of the western world. Now that is truly a scary thought.
The message is as effective as it is because it stealthily sneaks up behind you and exposes itself when you least expect it. Throughout the start of the film you can feel it “lurking like a big hairy rapist at a coach station” but it is not until after the credits roll that it “punches you into paralysis”. The message is subtly fed to the viewer under the guise of a smart satire, and it is totally accessible to its target audience; they being the type of people who are not afraid to examine a film more deeply than just its surface level.
So, by the end of the film, when war is waged and the only thing that the people who waged it can say is “well... that’s that then”; the horror and the uneasiness descends upon the viewer. The film and its message linger and resurge when watching the political bollocks play out in our own reality; pre-election debates, speeches, smear campaigns and pissing contests are now mentally deconstructed by the viewer and sorted into different categories: the overfull ‘rhetoric’, ‘bullshit’, and the almost empty ‘truth’.
This is the true power of not just this film, but cinema as a whole. This film reignites and justifies my obsession with film and renews my faith in the modern film industry. For that, it deserves the highest of accolades, not just a lousy “Best Screenplay” nomination.