In the Loop is an unusually good and funny film from a usually tepid and rather unfunny genre. After enduring an onslaught of mediocre films centered around the war in Iraq, 2009 seems to have finally brought audiences closer to cinematic resolution: first Kathryn Bigelow’s invigorating The Hurt Locker gave us a fresh insight, and now this: a relatively lighter affair, to be sure, but one of such rapid-fire wit that a second viewing is almost required.
In stereotypically British fashion, the humour is dry — you probably won’t experience many belly laughs — and yet selling it merely as such seems like something of a disservice to its quality. Best described in one line as a blend of Dr. Strangelove, This Is Spinal Tap and the Ricky Gervais Office series, director Armando Iannucci has parodied the lunacy of political disinformation and thoughtless rhetoric without his film coming across as a laborious broken record or the mouthpiece of an insufferable pacifist. No, you don’t have to be a liberal to enjoy this (although I can’t necessarily picture Bill O’Reilly endorsing it) — anyone with an appreciation for intelligent comedy, regardless of personal views, should find something to admire here, and it’ll be a shame if the picture isn’t at least nominated for Best Screenplay by year’s end.
The film is a spin-off of Iannucci’s UK show The Thick of It, starring a couple of the same characters, and it presumably takes place during the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq (although, to be fair, we’re never given the precise name of the country being targeted, nor the date for which these events take place).
The plot moves fast and some of the characters are hard to get a handle on at first, but it goes something like this: Britain’s Minister of International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), has a slip of the tongue while recording a live radio interview, admitting that any instance of war is “unforeseeable” and thereby perhaps even necessary — thus enraging the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi in a scathingly brilliant performance). At the behest of the PM, Tucker has Foster and his new assistant, Toby (Chris Addison), shipped off to Washington, D.C., where they suffer a game of political discourse with a pro-war State Department official (played well by David Rasche). The film also features talented actors in minor roles: James Gandolfini appears in one of the film’s most unexpectedly funny scenes, as a four-star general who computes the cost of a hypothetical war using a kids’ toy calculator. (“At the end of a war, you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.”) Steve Coogan, whose wonderful Alan Partridge was co-created by Iannucci, pops up in one of the more silly-minded sequences, as a man with a bit of a wall issue.
Though the film has achieved almost unanimous praise amongst critics, there have been some complaints, namely those of the NY Press’ Armond White. Usually I don’t address the comments of other reviewers, mainly because I typically don’t care, but also because everyone is entitled to their own opinion; yet I felt compelled to respond to White’s assertion that “Iannucci’s sense of place is indistinguishable from The Office or The West Wing.”
The Office, sure, but The West Wing? Really? Did we watch the same film, Mr. White? That show’s relative glamorization of closed door politics could not be at more complete odds with In the Loop, both in style and substance. What’s particularly interesting is that UK magazine Time Out did an article on the film last year, and even cited the movie’s production design as being the polar opposite of The West Wing‘s. Journalist Dave Calhoun wrote:
Iannucci tells me that he sees In the Loop as a cousin of The Thick of It. The similarities are everywhere, down to the docu-style, handheld camerawork evident on the monitors (it’s the same director of photography) and the anti-‘West Wing’ production design that throws all notions of political glamour out the window.
I mention this only because it is worth pointing out the movie’s heavy cynicism. Screen International’s David D’Arcy noted the film’s untimely release: “”[I]ts exuberant, boundless cynicism will test the demand for political satire in an Obama-infatuated America.” I respectfully disagree — audiences have never shown an inclination towards noting their countries’ present failures, which would perhaps best explain why almost every single motion picture focused on the Iraq War since 2003 has been a box office flop. Audiences flock to cinemas for escapism — not reminders. If time heals all wounds, then perhaps this is the opportune time to release In the Loop: at a point when we can begin to take a step back and accept the humour.
Regardless: this is a very sharp, decisive comedy, and certainly worth seeking out. The “instant classic” label is vastly overused, but it is perhaps not unforeseeable that this film may one day be for politics what Spinal Tap was for heavy metal.
In other words: an instant classic.