July 31, 2009

In the Loop

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



In the Loop

COMEDY:

United Kingdom, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-07-24

Running Length:

1:46

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Anna Chlumsky, Mimi Kennedy, David Rasche

Director:

Armando Iannucci

Screenplay:

Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche

Cinematography:

Jamie Cairney

U.S. Distributor:

IFC Films

Subtitles:

none


Dancing along a line just shy of the edge of brilliance, In the Loop possesses an incisive, take-no-prisoners comedic style that offers plenty of solid laughs while making a point about the stupidity, selfishness, and lack of awareness that exists within the highest echelons of government. Taking unflinching aim at the leadership bodies of both England and the United States, In the Loop takes us into the corridors of power and shows how generally clueless everyone is, where the chief doctrine has little to do with accomplishing the will of the people and much to do with ass covering. In the Loop is sometimes hilarious, but there's a sense of uneasiness that comes with the humor as we contemplate that the antics depicted on screen might be less satirical and more truthful than we might wish or hope.

In the Loop is the feature debut of Glasgow-born director Armando Ianucci, who has been a fixture in U.K. television since the beginning of the decade. (His TV series, In the Thick of It provides the inspiration for this theatrical endeavor.) The film displays good knowledge of how politics work on both sides of the Atlantic, and some of the themes and ideas it examines recall and reflect aspects of Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog and the brilliant BBC trilogy House of Cards/To Play the King/The Final Cut. ("You might well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment.") There are also some high level similarities to Stanley Kubrick's classic Dr. Strangelove. Although In the Loop may not be quite the equal of some of those illustrious titles, their mention provides an idea of the arena in which this satire has elected to do battle.

There's not much of a plot, and what there is merely forms a framework in which a number of characters can stumble around and illustrate how fundamentally broken the governments of two countries are. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is a British minister who has opened his mouth and inserted his foot by declaring the possibility of a U.S./U.K.-led war in the Middle East as "unforeseeable." This is deemed to be a major gaffe and the British government, led by the vicious and profane Communications Director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), immediately goes to work on damage control. Unfortunately, Foster, who is not good in front of microphones and cameras, continues to dig himself deeper every time he makes a public statement. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the President and a State Department lackey, Linton Barwick (David Rasche), have established a secret "war committee" to prepare for the conflict. Barwick does what he can to keep the existence of the committee quiet. But the resourceful opposition, led by Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini), learns the truth. Meanwhile, in act of international good faith, the Americans invite Foster to represent the U.K. on the committee. He arrives with an ill-prepared aide at his side and his propensity intact for saying the wrong thing.

The unspecified conflict (referred to only as "a war in the Middle East" and "an invasion") is based on the situation in Iraq, but this is not a partisan rant. In fact, the film does little to differentiate between Republicans and Democrats or Tories and Labour, and it never mentions by name the individuals who occupy the positions of P.M. and President. The targets of In the Loop are broad-based, and one of its most salient points is that party affiliation is irrelevant when it comes to feeding the idiocy that is 21st century government. By using the Iraq War as a model for a fictitious conflict, In the Loop is able to illustrate the multitude of ways in which governments stumble and bumble. Consider, for example, a scene in which the minutes from a committee meeting highlight something Barwick doesn't want in writing. He instructs an underling to strike the undesirable passage from the minutes, arguing that the minutes don't need to represent what was actually said but what should have been said. On the surface, this might sound ludicrous, but it makes one wonder...

The cast is populated with character actors, as is often the case with low-profile British films. Everyone fits nicely into their parts, including James Gandolfini as the highest ranking military official in the movie. There are some interesting and/or familiar faces, such as Tom Hollander as the inept Foster (he was the villainous Cutler Beckett in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) and Anna Chlumsky as Clarke's assistant (she was the title character in the early-90s Macaulay Culkin vehicle My Girl). The standout is Peter Capaldi, whose bravura performance as the profane, offensive Tucker is impossible to ignore. Capaldi is brilliant and is the best of many reasons to see In the Loop.

The dialogue sparkles, with one-liners occurring more frequently than lightning bolts in a summer storm. (I could transcribe a few here but will refrain from doing so on the ground that they have to be heard in context to retain their effectiveness. Although I will say one of the best lines - the one about France - is in the trailer.) Comedic momentum builds along with the running time. At the beginning, the movie is mildly amusing but, by the end, it's side-splitting. The humor works on two levels - general farce to generate laughter from "mainstream" viewers and subtle satire that will appeal strongly to those who follow politics. In the Loop is not designed exclusively for political junkies, but in them will the production find its greatest fans. While the movie could be seen as a cautionary tale about the ineptitude of governments run by buffoons, I was too busy laughing to care about any quasi-serious messages.

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