‘In the Loop’: Outrageously on the mark

July 20, 2009

At once biting and hilarious, “In the Loop” is satire with the ring of truth, a film that manages to put the pin to the hot-air balloon of government and politics on both sides of the Atlantic.


Ostensibly the adventures of a minor British cabinet minister – in London, Washington and at the United Nations – this film by Armando Iannucci is really about the slippery nature of power and its frenemy, fear. Power, as the film hilariously shows, is equal parts perception and bullshit – and how you wield the latter to shape the former.


Tom Hollander plays Simon Foster, the British secretary of state for international development. As the film starts, he’s already in trouble with the Prime Minister’s chief spin doctor, the expansively obscene and insulting Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). Even as England and the U.S. are debating a military intervention in the Middle East, Simon has made the innocuous remark during a radio interview that “war is unforeseeable.”


At a tender moment in Anglo-American relations over this possible invasion, the words are seized upon by hawks and doves alike as proof that Great Britain either is or isn’t ready to throw in with the U.S. for a potential conflict. In either case, Malcolm isn’t happy at having the water muddied by such an innocuous functionary.


But because of the meddling of a new assistant, Simon winds up in a meeting with Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy). Clarke is a visiting American assistant secretary of state, whose rival in the State Department, Linton Barwick (David Rasche), is pushing for war, even as she’s trying to pull back. Simon is meant to be “meat in the room,” a warm body there to fill space and keep quiet during a fact-finding gathering. Instead, he winds up injected into the dialogue, which includes an unintentional revelation that Barwick has a secret war-planning committee that Karen is unaware of.


Casually failing upwards, Simon and his assistant, Toby (Chris Addison), are dispatched to D.C. for further meetings with Karen and Linton. Just as casually, the two of them manage unintentionally to light a variety of fuses to the powder keg of war.


The only man who seems to have his finger on what’s really going on is Malcolm, who spews wildly funny (and obscene) insults like a scattergun. Racing around Washington, he tries to maintain control of what is and isn’t being leaked to the press, and what is and isn’t being done, though there are more holes than even he knows about.


Iannucci was writer-director of the BBC comedy, “The Thick of It,” and various of Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge projects. He creates humor indirectly and directly, finding the spiky/funny moments of prickly people interacting – but also seeing the bigger picture for the deeper laughs.


In this case, it’s the rush to war by people who don’t really care about the cause, only their ability to wield power, sway events and control them. When events suddenly go momentously wrong, it’s not the result of a major confrontation or power play; it’s not the outcome of a considered decision that proves to be the incorrect call. Rather, it’s the domino effect of some bit player being casually or carelessly loose with some small morsel of information that spins out of anyone’s control.


That’s the thing about power: It flows and ebbs, governed by chance, by perception, by luck – and it’s a moment-by-moment thing. Iannucci finds wonderfully witty ways to demonstrate that everyone – absolutely everyone – believes that he or she really knows what’s going on and that no one – absolutely no one – really does.


So no matter how much Linton Barwick or Malcolm Tucker or Karen Clarke scheme and manipulate, they can’t foresee someone else’s screw-up that will suddenly shift the tide, force them to play catch-up and do damage control, to create a new “normal” that they’re in front of and not chasing.


This exceptional ensemble cast meshes beautifully; no role is too small to contribute a piercingly funny aside or hysterical moment of acute embarrassment. Hollander is particularly good as the wishy-washy Brit, struggling to maintain a grip on his destiny. But Addison is equally good as the ambitiously clueless Toby; so is Anna Chlumsky as his American counterpart.


Look for James Gandolfini, deliciously understated as a Colin Powell-like general who has no taste for war. Kennedy and Rasche are outstanding as rivals who casually undercut each other at every opportunity. The real scene-stealer, of course, is Capaldi as the invective-spewing string-puller whose sheer nastiness keeps people cowed and in line.


“In the Loop” is brilliant at needling its subject into submission, without resorting to slashing or pounding. It may be the smartest, funniest political comedy since “Wag the Dog.”


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