In July of 2009, it's a bit anachronistic to release a film about the shadowy arms of government in the U.S. and Britain meeting to develop a justification for war in the Middle East. So, at first glance, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop appears to be situated rather awkwardly from a historical standpoint, framing political debates that took place in late 2002 and early 2003 amongst comedic cultural references that scream 2008. Yet rather than launch a filmic protest against political enemies who have already bitten the dust, Iannucci and the creative team behind BBC sitcom The Thick of It opt to focus instead on the media's current obsession with parsing every syllable to leave a public figure’s mouth. The result is a clever and relevant send-up of a climate in which political careers hang precipitously on the tip of the tongue.
The bulk of In the Loop concerns British Minister for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), who makes a series of unfortunate off-the-cuff comments in interviews that seem to both denounce and endorse potential American and British “military intervention” in the Middle East. These comments set off a three-way tug-of-war between rival American Assistant Secretaries of Diplomacy Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) and Linton Barwick (David Rasche), who wish to manipulate Foster’s comments for their own anti-war and pro-war causes (respectively), and British Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), who tries vainly to conduct damage control on the quickly erupting war situation. Meanwhile, a young staffer in Clark’s office (Anna Chlumsky) sees her paper detailing the pros and cons of a war in the Middle East, which was leaked to British intelligence following her romantic encounter with Foster’s young aide Toby (Chris Addison), binding her political future to the military debate as both sides attempt to twist her claims.
The script — a joint effort by The Thick of It team of Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche — is built on satire’s twin pillars of acerbic wit and trenchant political commentary. The dialogue is rife with the clever wordplay and humorous double entendres we expect from veterans of acclaimed British sitcoms. However, this traditional comedic discourse functions here as a symbolic gesture as well as a source of levity. The film’s focus on the dangers of rhetorical imprecision render the characters' words particularly meaningful, even when the jokes are not necessarily germane to the plot. For variety, the writers often interrupt their brainy script with vulgar verbal slapstick. Tucker’s unrestrained foul mouth functions in ironic counterpoint to the measured blandness that he begs from Foster, and his histrionics provide many of the film’s most hilarious moments.
The realist formal approach taken by Iannucci and cinematographer Jamie Cairney yields mixed, if ultimately positive, results. The two shoot for an appearance of documentary-style spontaneity similar to the handheld camerawork in The Office. This tactic lends a very human sense of pacing and suddenness to the film’s proceedings. To view In the Loop, and particularly to put yourself in hapless Foster’s shoes, is to feel genuinely swept up in a breakneck political current that is easy to talk yourself into but impossible to escape. We truly develop an appreciation for the almost robotic level of preparedness and self-control that successful politicians must possess. Yet, at times, the cinematography seems a bit at odds with the demands of such an intricately constructed comedic script. In place of the rampant improvisation that the visual approach augments on a show like The Office, the precisely scripted nature of In the Loop makes some of the more clumsily telegraphed jokes and one-liners come off as more awkwardly stilted than they would otherwise.
Iannucci and co. also stumble slightly in their understanding of the organization of American government (last I checked, there was no Cabinet-level Secretary of Diplomacy) in a way that might harm their credibility if this was a Syriana-style exposé of behind-the-scenes warmongering. And the filmmakers do gesture at that kind of filmic polemic here, casting the hawkish Barwick quite obviously as the type of Cheney/Rumsfeld villain who would utter the ominous reductionism, “In the land of the truth, the man with one fact is king.” But, at heart, this is not so much a film with a strident geopolitical agenda as it is a cautionary tale about the volatility of speech and self-presentation in the public sphere. The eventual destination of a U.N. vote to authorize war in the Middle East is ultimately an anticlimax; the film invests so much energy in exploring the absurdities of the labyrinthine political journey that its results barely seem to matter.
In the end, this narrative letdown does little to tarnish In the Loop. This kind of plot is already past its expiration date, given the hopeful political climate that has emerged with the Obama administration. Conversely, the theme of rhetorical restraint has only grown in importance in recent months. Social networking sites like Twitter have increased the potential for unfiltered gaffes in communication between politicians and their constituents. Witness Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra’s much-ridiculed comparison of House Republicans’ use of Twitter to that of Iranian election protesters fearing for their lives. Or what about Virginia GOP Chairman Jeff Frederick’s bungling of a Republican move to take power in the Virginia State Senate by tweeting his party’s intentions prematurely, thus allowing the Democratic majority leader to foil them? As examples like these become increasingly common, a film like In the Loop appears all the more prescient.