Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Review: In the Loop

In the Loop ****
Directed By: Armando Iannucci.
Written By: Jesse Armstrong & Simon Blackwell & Armando Iannucci & Ian Martin & Tony Roche
Starring: Peter Capaldi (Malcolm Tucker), Tom Hollander (Simon Foster), Gina McKee (Judy), James Gandolfini (Lt. Gen. George Miller), Chris Addison (Toby Wright), Anna Chlumsky (Liza Weld), Enzo Cilenti (Bob Adriano), Paul Higgins (Jamie MacDonald), Mimi Kennedy (Karen Clarke), Alex Macqueen (Sir Jonathan Tutt), Johnny Pemberton (A.J. Brown), Olivia Poulet (Suzy), David Rasche (Linton Barwick), Joanna Scanlan (Roz), James Smith (Michael Rodgers), Steve Coogan (Paul Michaelson), Zach Woods (Chad).

I don’t think we’ll see a film this year that is funnier than In the Loop. Practically every line of dialogue in the film is a spot on one liner, delivered by one member of one of the best ensemble casts of the year. It is also a brilliant, dark political satire about the few days before war is declared by the Americans on an unnamed country in the Middle East. But the Americans need allies of course, and that is where the British come in. They can offer both the intelligence and the international support to make this not look like a unilateral effort on behalf of the Americans, but rather an international invasion led by a coalition.

If only Simon Foster, the Minister of International Diplomacy, would tow the company line, things would be a lot of easier. The problem is that no matter what he says, he says something wrong. First he declares war is “unforeseeable” on a radio show, which prompts a visit for the PM’s Communication director Malcolm Turner (Peter Capaldi), who swears more often (and much more creatively) than a Scorsese mobster, who screams at Simon for saying that. No problem, Simon says, he can correct it and say that war is foreseeable. That’s no good either. He can only say one thing and have it be right - nothing. But Simon is incapable of that. When he goes on camera again, he is asked about is comment, and he tries to clarify. He says that while “war is not desirable, sometimes in order to walk the road of peace, you must be prepared to climb the mountain of conflict”. This does not sit well with Tucker either, who shows up again, tells Simon that he sounds like a “Nazi Julie Andrews”, and tries to get rid of him by sending him on a “fact finding” mission to America. His assignment - talk to as few people as humanly possible.

Simon does want to bring his normal aide Judy (Gina McKee) with him on the trip. She is too dour, too insulting, and perhaps worst of all too intelligent and competent. So he brings the new guy - Toby (Chris Addison) with him instead. Toby seems to be a little more intelligent than his new boss, but he still says all the wrong things, and gets himself into more and more trouble. Toby ends up in bed with Liza (Anna Chlumsky), an attractive, bright young aide to Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), an anti-war, high ranking state department woman. Liza has written a potentially damaging paper which outlines both the pros and cons of intervention - guess what side she comes out on? She has an unlikely alley is General Miller (James Gandolfini), who is a career soldier, but does not believe they should be going to war. But none of this really matters to Linton Barwick (Davis Rasche), a sort of Donald Rumsfeld figure preparing for war, even if he has no real evidence to support it.

If the movie sounds hopelessly 2003, and therefore no irrelevant, to a certain extent it is. But in a much larger context, In the Loop looks at the system that is corrupt and decayed - rotten from the inside out. That they are talking about invading a country in the Middle East is really beside the point. They could be talking about health care reform, sinking economies or any other political issue at any time. The importance is not what they are arguing about, but how they go about doing it.

No one in the film is really a good guy, and no one is really a bad guy. In a sense, no matter what side each of the characters are on, they are equally weak willed and corrupt. The only thing that matters is that they win - that they are able to gain political points and capital. There is a lot of talk in the film among the people who do not support the war about resigning, and following their “convictions”. But they are really looking for is to make themselves look better - and their opponents look worse. They do not seem to realize, or perhaps even scarier, do not seem to care that by resigning, all they are really ensuring is that their voice of dissent is not heard at all. They all surround themselves with people who share their opinions. It is easier that way.

Which is what makes Simon so interesting. He does not really know what he believes. Like a child, he allows himself to be pushed and pulled from all sides, and seems to give everyone the answer that they want to hear. Also like a child, he stutters and stammers, and always seems to say the wrong thing. Whereas almost everyone else in the film knows exactly what they are doing the entire movie, he seems to have clue. Is he as corrupt and morally bankrupt as everyone else? No. He’s just another incompetent government employee. He cannot even effectively deal with a falling wall on his property, and the irate neighbor (Steven Coogan, playing the only “civilian” in the film) who demands that something be done about it. As played by Tom Hollander, Simon is the ultimate ineffectual politician. He means to do good, but has no real idea of how to do it.

The other interesting character in the movie is Malcolm, played in one of the best comedic performances of the year by Peter Capaldi. From the first time we see him, when he ends his phone conversation with the phrase “Fuckety bye” (which my wife has already picked up as her new favorite quote) we know that Malcolm is not your typical political staffer. Clearly inspired by Tony Blair’s mad dog, Scottish director of communications Alastair Campbell, Malcolm bullies everyone he meets into doing what he wants them do. When he makes an allusion to “hounding” Simon to an “assisted suicide”, the film rather boldly, and heartlessly, references David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector who killed himself after being grilled by two separate “committees” in England - committees play an important role in this film as well. Everyone wants in on the Future Planning Committee, once they really find out that is only a euphemism for the War Committee. What do these committees actually do sit around and discuss decisions that has already been made and is irreversible. It’s all for show. While they spend a lot of time trying to keep people who disagree with them off of committees, or arguing over media leaks or potentially dangerous reports, none of it really matters. They are all essentially little boys trying to prove to each other who has the biggest dick (and no, it does not matter that some of the characters are women). That is really what all of Malcolm’s macho posturing, constantly swearing and pop culture infused insults add up to - trying to prove that he is in fact the biggest man in the room. When he cannot prove it one way, he proves it another - by doctoring the intelligence they need to justify the war. Does it matter to him that the data is faulty? Not really, because it allows him to prove that he is the biggest man in the room. He is able to dress down Linton, who previously humiliated him by telling him she was a piece of “S * * t” (Linton being religious does not believe in swearing, so yes, he actually spells out the word and replaces the two middle letters by saying star), but calling him a “F * * Cunt”. He’s won.

Which is what makes In the Loop ultimately so chilling. We have a bunch of little children leading our countries into war just so that they can feel superior to each other. One of the reasons why the movie works so well is because the ensemble cast flows so effortlessly together. It is full of familiar faces from movies and television, both American and British, but none of them stand above the rest of them. Even James Gandolfini, who dominated The Sopranos for almost a decade, fits in as just another cog in the wheel. (He also has some of the films best lines with “We have 12,000 troops for the mission, but that’s the number that will likely be killed. You need some troops alive at the end, or else it looks like you lost”).

The film does not really have a conclusion, it just ends. That’s not a flaw, but a choice. Nothing changes, even when it seems like everything has. The faces may be different but the result is the same - we’re screwed.

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