“He’s a bit of an alpha male, isn’t he?” comments British Minister for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) to his new advisor Toby Wright (Chris Addison) about the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi).
Even those unfamiliar with the character of Malcolm from television’s fly-on-the-wall political comedy The Thick Of It have by now seen enough of the chief spin doctor’s heroic swearing and bullying tactics to realise that Simon’s absurdly understated words here are merely stating the obvious – but then, it is not for nothing that the mild-mannered MP is nicknamed ‘Simon Fluster’.
As the US Administration starts building the case for invading an unnamed Middle Eastern country, Simon cluelessly makes both anti- and pro-war public statements within the space of a few days. Still, sounding “like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews” (as Malcolm puts it) has its political advantages, and the dithering minister finds himself with Toby in Washington being courted or at least used – by both sides of the war debate in the lead-up to a UN vote.
Pushing for invasion is Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a fact-averse, war-mongering, metaphor-mangling cipher for Donald Rumsfeld, who with his team of yes men has already established a secret War Committee while US Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her Pentagon ally General Miller (James Gandolfini) are hoping to stop the sabres rattling with a devastating briefing paper written by Karen’s aide Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), who happens to be an old flame of Toby’s.
Fluids are exchanged, diversions are set, information is leaked, documents are altered, and although Simon has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time to effect real change, he is incapable of saying the right thing while there. Having left his far more dependable Director of Communications Judy Malloy (Gina McKee) whose competence intimidates him – in London, Simon is stuck in America between Toby’s bumbling idiocy, Malcolm’s Machiavellian scheming, and his own spineless indecision, even as the small matter of a collapsing wall in his constituency back home is beginning to take on international proportions.
How do you make a small-screen British satire transfer successfully to the big-screen feature-length format? Easy: take the Brits stateside (in the footsteps of Borat, as it were), and see what comic chaos emerges when the ‘Special Relationship’ is sent into a political spin. And In The Loop really is funny, even if all that laughter has the darkest of underpinnings. For though it may be shrouded in fiction, this is the vicious stupidity of the Blair-Bush years writ large, when war could be joined on the basis of dodgy dossiers, distorted intelligence and misplaced machismo, while those who might have stopped it were ignored, outmanoeuvered or bullied into craven submission.
If the language employed by Malcolm is inventively bellicose, that serves here as a verbal mirror to the violence of war itself and this film, for all its humour, occasionally sees fit to remind us that a real war is at stake beneath the fog and frivolity. Showing how politicians, in all their petty ambition and narrow self-interest, can be every bit as dangerous as Weapons of Mass Destruction, this is Dr Strangelove for the post-9/11 era.
Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci continues the working practice he honed to perfection in The Thick Of It, encouraging his talented ensemble to regard the screenplay as a springboard for improvisation. The result is a flurry of memorably preposterous lines, jaw-dropping insults and odious characterisations, sweetly and surreally free-floating their way through the complexities of the plot.
The only real flaw here is the film’s belatedness. Had In The Loop come out closer to the events of 2002 and early 2003 that it so convincingly lampoons, or even while the likes of Bush, Blair and Campbell were still in office, its sting would have been that much sharper, whereas now, with Obama still enjoying his honeymoon period, something seems a little quaint, a little pass, about the biting cynicism on offer here. Give it time, though, and the film will no doubt again find its currency, as our politicians inevitably return to form, and the alpha males again punch a path to the top.