In the Loop

In theaters.

True satire spares no one, and In the Loop is as true as it comes: mercilessly sharp, brutally unsentimental, and absolutely hilarious. The movie targets (albeit with fictional characters) the transatlantic political machinations that lead to the invasion of Iraq, but it never actually names that country or makes any more than the vaguest references to the Middle East. For all the high stakes we know to be there, most of the characters are too wrapped up in bureaucratic infighting to pay them much heed. That breathtakingly cynical vision of an already dark chapter in the history of both the United Kingdom and the United States leaves me with mixed feelings. Despite the precision and brilliance of its barbs, In the Loop doesn’t always ring true to me, and I can’t figure out whether that’s because I’m too cynical, not cynical enough, or simply cynical in a different way.

The movie opens with Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the British Minister for International Development, blunderingly describing war as “unforeseeable.” The word is unacceptably dovish to Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister’s caustic Director of Communications, and Foster’s awkward attempts to walk the impolitic adjective back just make matters worse. He has a chance to redeem himself on a visit to Washington, D.C., but even his ostensible allies there view him—and indeed the U.K. in general—with cheerful contempt. The Brits are minor players in their wrangling, and Foster—even Tucker, to some degree—is in over his head.

The cast is exemplary, from the leads down to the actors with just a line or two. Hollander performs the neat trick of giving his bumbling minister just enough dignity to make his gaffes all the more entertaining, and Capaldi’s tightly wound, blisteringly foul-mouthed character is riotously funny—perhaps the funniest in the whole movie. It’s still odd to see James Gandolfini as someone other than Tony Soprano, but here he plays an American general with a markedly different demeanor. His character surprises me the most—you think you have him pegged, and then the man pivots out of the box you’ve set him in—and Gandolfini handles the complexity with all the finesse you would expect from him and even, to my delight, pulls out his familiar shrewd, predatory smile for a few scenes. Mimi Kennedy gives an unself-conscious, sharp-angled turn as a canny American state department appointee; Chris Addison and Anna Chlumsky are enjoyably droll as flunkies whose skills don’t match their ambition; and Paul Higgins shows up toward the end of the film to give Capaldi a run for his money in the hysterically abrasive, vitriolic Scot department. (Between Capaldi and Higgins, I’m prepared to state that all insult humor should be delivered in a thick Scottish accent. The accent puts things up to 11.)

So energetic and fluid are the performances that it’s all too easy to forget that someone wrote their acid, rapid-fire dialogue, someone deserves credit for creating this unholy union of Aaron Sorkin– and David Mamet–style repartee. In fact, there are several someones. In the Loop is essentially a spinoff of a British TV series, The Thick of It, and the series writers—Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin, Tony Roche, and director Armando Iannucci—all had a hand in the film’s screenplay. All the more impressive, then, that the movie is so cohesive. What’s more, unlike some other writers of hyperstylized dialogue I could name, the Loop crew doesn’t make the mistake of giving everyone the same voice. Part of the humor comes from the way the weaker characters struggle to keep up with the stronger ones’ linguistic bombardment—and the way that bombardment, ultimately, is a less powerful weapon than its bearers anticipate. The movie never reaches for poignancy, exactly—it’s far too sardonic for that—but the nuanced writing does permit a few quiet, redolent beats. It’s fascinating and, if you think about it too hard, incredibly sad.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the portrayal of the relationship between the U.K. and the U.S. It’s much smarter and more penetrating, but it reminds me a bit of that scene in Love, Actually in which the British Prime Minister, with his newfound backbone, goes off-script in a press conference and ever-so-politely describes the United States and its president as bullies. It’s a wildly uneven movie: the bad parts are terribly, terribly bad, and that climatic scene represents such naked, futile wish-fulfillment that it makes me uncomfortable. But I’ve never forgotten it, because at the time that film came out, I resented Tony Blair deeply for his role in the whole Iraq debacle. It wasn’t like I had ever trusted Bush, but Blair, I had thought, had some integrity. It had never occurred to me that the British might feel that the American government had bullied their own leaders to act against their better judgment (a blind spot on my part, no doubt), and while I’m not inclined to forgive Blair, Love did make me think about him (and British perception of him) in a new way. (And yes, it’s sort of insane that I’m ascribing all this to a mediocrity like Love, Actually, but what can I say? I tend to get bogged down in these things.)

In any case, In the Loop is far more sophisticated, but it has a touch of that same bitter inferiority complex at its heart. The final scene between Capaldi and Gandolfini takes my breath away. The Brit technically gets the last word, but it’s pyrrhic, to say the least, because the American general basically dismisses him altogether. He doesn’t care that Tucker gets the last word. Tucker doesn’t matter, and they both know it.

I’m prepared to believe that that’s how the British perceive their relationship with Americans, but for my part, the movie’s portrayal of the American contingent feels off. Take Gandolfini’s general, for example. As much as I love the performance, the character, as written, doesn’t feel believable to me. He doesn’t talk or interact with civilians like any U.S. career military man I’ve ever seen. I think the writers were going for a Colin Powell type, but the similarity is so superficial that it doesn’t work. The character feels imaginary.

More significantly, the movie implies that both the British political players and the American political players are motivated almost solely by ambition and gamesmanship, pitting themselves against one another not for any real cause but for their own petty advancement. Ideological arguments are virtually absent, on both sides of the issue. It’s a jaundiced, ugly worldview—and I don’t believe it. If you read anything about the advocates for invasion, at least on our side of the Atlantic, you immediately run up against ideologues: a bizarre alliance of religious extremists, neo-imperialists, and free-market absolutists. I’m not arguing that everyone was like that—far from it—but the absence of that kind of player mystifies me. (I think David Rasche’s state department functionary, Linton Barwick, might have been intended as a stand-in for zealotry, but his character isn’t really developed, so when one character tells another “you’re doing Linton’s dirty work—you’re his little English bitch and you don’t even know it,” there’s little sense of the implications of that, other than the obvious nationalistic tension.)

Weirder still, the movie makes virtually no mention of selling the war to the public—which is, surely, why it matters that Foster fumbles his interviews. Yet there’s no discussion of poll data or talking points, little attention paid to journalists except in the most narrow, insular sense. (For example, Barwick is upset when CNN learns of his secret war-planning committee not because he cares whether the public knows about it but because he isn’t ready for some of his colleagues to know about it.) And that, too, seems weird. In the United States, at least, selling to and through the media was a huge deal, wasn’t it? All that fear-mongering about mushroom clouds and yellow cake? Right?

So am I being naive or cynical if I chafe against the Loop worldview? I honestly don’t know, but either way, it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying movie’s pitch-black sense of humor and its wonderful facility with language. (Plus, Tucker’s sneering complaint that Foster’s inept walk-back—“Sometimes you have to climb the mountain of conflict”—makes him sound like “a Nazi Julie Andrews” is forever etched in my mind.) I truly enjoyed In the Loop, and I admire the fearlessness of its satire, so maybe I should just think of the off-kilter view of Americans as a window into British perception of the whole fiasco. Maybe they find it easier to think of us as merely venal; maybe they just can’t comprehend how crazy we really are.