Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop understands a fundamental principle of politics: Ego trumps all. His film, a transatlantic depiction of the build-up to a Middle Eastern war within the governments of the United States and Britain, presents an ensemble of characters driven solely by their personal interests, by dreams of glory and celebrity, by everything but the needs of the populations that have elected them as representatives. Delivered with characteristically British drollness, with the faux-documentary camerawork that’s in vogue these days, the picture steadfastly shatters any remaining hope one might have in the ideal that those in public service might answer to a higher cause.
The film begins in Britain, with the lowly government minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) getting into trouble with communications director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) when he gives a public comment that suggests planning to be afoot for a war in the Middle East. His statement attracts the attention of U.S. Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) who is fighting the strong case for combat being made in her own government, principally by her boss Linton Barwick (David Rasche). She invites Simon across the pond as a figurehead for her case against the war and soon the star struck MP finds himself swept up in some good old-fashioned Washington intrigue.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt famous spoke of the banality of evil, and while Iannucci and his collaborators go to great lengths to present their characters as ordinary, fallible people the fact that so many of them so singularly bungle such an awesome responsibility inspires feelings of considerable contempt. It’s hard to be anything but horrified by the assemblage, from the hapless Tucker to the blowhard Barwick, on down to the tiniest aide. The genius of the screenplay lies in its equation of the backdoor machinations, bruised feelings and childlike sniping in which they all engage with that of any other workplace. Scenes like one in which Tucker whines about being stuck in a D.C. hotel room on a Saturday night when he should be out hobnobbing and being seen express the vapidity at the heart of the D.C. political culture as potently as the best satires of the past.
Paced at a breakneck speed, the film effectively envelops the audience in its swirl of activity. The milieu becomes a world without order or purpose, in which the events of one day might be completely overshadowed by the next and a million different agendas compete for attention and dollars. Fortunately, there’s no time to sit back and contemplate the scope of the misdeeds being practiced; no scenes of the devastation of war. Had there been Iannucci and his collaborators would be making a very different movie: A tragedy of epic proportions.
Instead, the filmmaker focuses on the impeccably portrayed personalities involved, each of whom offers a different element that congeals into the ultimate picture of hopeless incompetence. Most memorable: the character of Malcolm Tucker, the lone holdover from Iannucci’s BBC satire The Thick of It that inspired the film. Breathing fire, he rampages across the political landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic, stopping at nothing to promote his agenda. Capaldi owns the part, delegating some spectacular put-downs with uninhibited nasty aplomb. He’s a scary, satanic figure who never met a moral compromise he couldn’t come to terms with. Similarly, Barwick projects the unvarnished, narcissistic machismo that so characterized many of the major players in the Bush Administration. His callous, gender based disregard for his colleague Karen and the possibility that she might have some meaningful ideals reaffirms the toxicity of the old-boy network that still dominates the political scene. Rasche gets the pathological cockiness, carrying himself with such pomposity that one vividly recognizes the slick prototype.
The movie is ultimately stretched a bit thin, and it suffers towards the conclusion, as the manic plot threatens to eclipse the narrative. Still, In the Loop in many ways lands one of the final body blows to the mystique that once surrounded national politics, now regularly shredded on The Daily Show and elsewhere. It may be fiction in the strictest sense, but make no mistake: it’s well-researched, conclusive proof that the men and women we’ve put in charge of our lives are as dunderheaded and regressive as the rest of us. Be very afraid.