In the lead up to sanctioning American and British military action in the Middle East, a gaffe by a minor British government minister gives hope to anti-war supporters. The politician and a staffer are sent to Washington to appease Britain’s ally, but they soon become pawns in the backroom dealings that are seemingly at odds with the reality of what is about to occur.
Pound for pound, expletive for expletive, Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop features some of the best foul-mouthed tirades ever set on film. This is the Citizen Kane of personal abuse; cast member Peter Capaldi the Laurence Olivier of furious scorn. This picture turns demeaning banter into virtuosic sprays – it might just be Paul Keating’s favourite movie of all time.
Here’s British government Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi), just arrived in Washington D.C. and faced with a briefing from a 22-year-old White House staffer: 'Don’t get sarcastic with me, son. We burned this tight-arsed city to the ground in 1814. And I’m all for doing it again, starting with you, you frat fuck. You get sarcastic with me again and I will stuff so much cotton wool down your fucking throat it’ll come out your arse like the tail on a Playboy bunny."
This, by the way, is one of the more repeatable remarks that Tucker makes. My personal favourite is just four words, spat out by Tucker’s offsider, Jamie MacDonald (Paul Higgins), who like his mentor is a Scot who apparently relishes paying back four hundred years of English subjugation. 'Shut it, Love Actually," he tells someone who dares to disagree with him. It’s not only effective, it tells you everything you know about what kind of film In The Loop isn’t.
Of course, it’s not really a film at all. Iannucci and his writing team are products of television, with In The Loop a companion piece to his Whitehall television series The Thick of It. It uses many of the same cast members (most in slightly different roles) and has the budget to shoot in Washington, although the aesthetic remains handheld, with dingy office lighting. It’s public service verite, as ugly as the sentiment it satirises.
While it features a hapless British government minister – Tom Hollander as Simon Foster – it’s populated by advisers and bureaucrats, career soldiers and ambitious interns. These are the people who turn the decisions of the powerful into policy, and provide the justification after the fact. The British contingent are soon in Washington D.C. to pass on a smoking gun to their ally, and when they can’t provide one it’s simply manufactured.
The inspiration, plainly, is the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but by setting it at this level, below the nobility of countless West Wing episodes, Iannucci is suggesting that his cast are simply rats running through a maze, adhering to a decision they had no say in. There’s a touch of Kafka to his very funny machinations.
The plot is deliberately dense. No-one is entirely sure what they’re doing, or why it matters, but they simply know it had to happen an hour ago. There’s a report PWIP-PIP ('Who wrote that", someone rightly asks, 'Charles Dickens?") that is repeatedly doctored and leaked by different factions, and every committee has a disarming name to confuse outsiders. But it zips along effortlessly, and at certain points you may enjoy simply closing your eyes and taking in the whip smart banter.
Iannucci might not believe in the strength of morality to win through, but the film is not completely heartless. It does suggest that even the long compromised will try to do good, although success is unlikely, and that occasionally even the most withering figure will meet his match.
For Malcolm Tucker it’s U.S. Army Lt. General George Miller (James Gandolfini), a bear of a man who is opposed to war because he’s actually seen what transpires once one kicks off. Their scene together is a brutal comic skirmish in a film of many, but it’s also a reminder that even the most entertaining of bastards will eventually be called on his deeds. In The Loop delights in their actions even as it pulls the plug on all of them.
Watch 'In the Loop'
Friday 16 April, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi, James Gandolfini, Gina Mckee, Anna Chlumsky