In The Loop (dir: Armando Iannucci)
Politics is no place for idealists and amateurs, if this fiercely funny satire of British party politics and international diplomacy is to be believed. The triumph of director Armando Iannucci, his writers and especially his star, Peter Capaldi, is that for all the raucous chaos and foul dialogue, it’s a simultaneously hilariously and terrifyingly convincing model of how modern statesmanship must work.
Tom Hollander’s Simon Foster, the diplomatically naive Minister of International Development, looks to be the film’s ostensible hero, a political stumblebum who has a tendency to talk about issues he has no business discussing and an even worse habit of offering opinions in place of doubletalk. But it’s Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s director of communications and the administration’s internal strong arm, who commands attention. Where some rule through terror, Malcolm has learned control through verbal intimidation. His invective-laced tirades are as mesmerizing as they are funny, almost hypnotic in their reach for creatively foul threats and insults, and his tactics know no boundaries, especially as Simon’s public comments contradict the administration’s official public line and its secret march to war in lockstep with America. It just gets more tangles when he’s sent to Washington.
Without naming any actual countries or even dates, it turns into a commentary on the political machinations involved in justifying an invasion of Iraq, by misrepresenting evidence, suppressing conflicting information and quarantining dissenting voices. David Rasche is perfectly devious as the American architect of invasion of an unnamed country in the middle east (think of him as equal parts Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, with a casually arrogant demeanor and a cutting line of attack) and he’s in no mood to see Simon’s confused statements add to his own troubles, namely an American analyst (Mimi Kennedy) suspicious of his intelligence and an outspoken General (James Gandolfini) resistant to send anyone to war without good reason. Which is absurd in a political culture statecraft is merely high-stakes poker on an international scale and reason is merely an excuse to serve opportunity and power.
There’s not much shape to this film, which plays like a pair of connected episodes of TV series (no surprise, given the roots of the film in the British series The Thick of It) and is directed in the mock-doc style that has become so familiar in shows like The Office (and, I’m told, The Thick of It). But for all the satirical exaggeration and comic complications (one of them courtesy of Steve Coogan as a frustrated constituent whose private conflicts with Malcolm become a very public distraction), but its portrait of politics as gamesmanship over governance is fiercely funny and terrifyingly convincing. Hollander makes Simon’s bumbling lack of media savvy and his timid tiptoe up to making a moral stand endearing while the film plays him as completely impotent in the face of guile, experience and the ruthless determination of Malcolm, a power player whose caustic wit is so cutting that it practically lacerates anyone who faces it without the thick skin of political experience. Mr. Smith came to Washington with an idealism strong enough to stand up to such cynical ploys. Mr. Tucker has no such armor and Iannucci no such faith in idealism without guile. Given the way things turned out in the war the last administration engineered in Iraq, it’s hard to blame him.
This review is also featured on the Seattle PostGlobe here.