Hollywood should be ashamed that “In the Loop,” the sharpest, funniest political satire in years, had to be imported from England instead of being made here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. But the filmmakers were gracious enough to make fun of the American political system along with the British one, and the scathing, dizzyingly well-crafted dialogue has plenty of shrapnel for everyone.
Spun off from BBC Four’s eight-episode “The Thick of It,” it’s about political insiders on both sides of the pond working together to prevent — or, in some cases, encourage — war in the Middle East. The trouble begins when Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a wide-eyed, unimportant U.K. cabinet minister who doesn’t know when to shut up, cluelessly tells a news reporter that war is “unforeseeable,” contradicting the official pro-war message coming from Downing Street. The prime minister’s director of communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a terrifying man with an awe-inspiring mastery of profanity, does damage control with the press: “You may have heard him say that, but he didn’t say that. And that’s a fact.”
Facts are slippery things in Malcolm Tucker’s world, just as they are in Washington, at the desk of Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a state department warmonger who uses a grenade as a paperweight. Hearing of a report filed by an underling that makes a much stronger case against the war than for it, Barwick is dismissive. “We have all the facts on this we need. We don’t need any more facts. In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is the king.” He later suggests “correcting” the minutes of a meeting where a secret war committee was accidentally mentioned. “Those minutes … should not be a reductive record of what happened to have been said, but they should be more a full record of what was intended to have been said.”
Barwick’s state department colleague and mortal enemy, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), is in London just after Foster’s “unforeseeable” gaffe, and she seizes it as a chance to slow down the rush to war. It was a staffer of hers, Liza (Anna Chlumsky), who wrote that anti-war report; Liza, for her part, is mortified that she’s becoming well-known for writing a paper that so boldly contradicts the hawkish political climate — it’s political suicide for her, as her fellow low-level staffer, Chad (Zach Woods), is only too happy to remind her. (Chad spends most of his time hanging around Linton Barwick’s office like a puppy, hoping for a chance to do some brown-nosing.)
Meanwhile, Tucker is doing his best to berate Foster into compliance. Don’t talk about war, he tells him. Don’t talk about anything. If you go to a meeting, sit there silently. Foster, hapless and incompetent in a Michael Scott/David Brent sort of way, simply cannot comply. Shove a microphone in his face and he’ll ramble. Next thing you know, he’s saying something that sounds pro-war, and now Linton Barwick wants to use him as a pawn.
That’s politics for you: a game of pawns being manipulated by bigger pawns. Every character is capable of pettiness, egotism, and rank hypocrisy — some more than others, sure, but everyone is amusingly screwed-up in one way or another. Karen Clarke, who’s trying to do the right thing, has a problem with her gums bleeding. Simon Foster’s new assistant, Toby (Chris Addison), new to politics but eager to please, accidentally leaks word of the secret war committee to CNN. Pentagon strategist Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) knows that the proposed war is logistically unfeasible — “At the end of a war you want some guys left alive, or it looks like you’ve lost” — and might be the most noble character in the film. Malcolm Tucker calls him “General Flintstone” once, “General Shrek” another time. (Among the other things that Tucker calls people: “Ron Weasley,” “Frodo,” “Charlotte F***ing Bronte,” “The woman from ‘The Crying Game,'” and “J. Edgar F***ing Hoover.”)
The film, a cheerful shotgun blast of cynicism directed by U.K. TV veteran Armando Iannucci (who wrote the screenplay with regular collaborators Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche), takes all the glamour out of politics. The prime minister and U.S. president are never shown, or even named; our focus is the sweaty, exhausted, Machiavellian schemers inside the sausage factory. Iannucci’s style is Robert Altman meets “The Office,” with handheld cameras, unflattering lighting, overlapping dialogue, and snappish one-liners so funny you’d write them down except that it would take two viewings to catch them all.
There is a scene where Toby has bungled something, and his boss, the ever-bungling Simon Foster, chews him out with masterful snideness. At first you think it is out of character for Foster to be so quick-wittedly sarcastic. But no — in this world, sarcasm is never out of character. Just as a lowly gravedigger can speak in florid Elizabethan prose in “Hamlet,” so too can the dumbest civil servant deliver an eloquently snarky rebuke of an underling. Sarcasm is the lingua franca of politics, or at least of “In the Loop.” If you’re not fluent in it yourself, you will be when it’s over.
A (1 hr., 46 min.; )