It is a rare thing to see political satire done well. Dr. Strangelove is still the gold standard. The Nineties had Wag the Dog and the Seventies had The Candidate. Preston Sturge's The Great McGinty deserves a mention as does Duck Soup, but we're already back to the Thirties. These days you have to go to places like The Daily Show or The Onion to find political comedy with some bite, but they have the luxury of a direct frontal assault. For fiction, limp duds like Man of the Year are what pass for parody. This is all by way of explaining why I became almost giddy watching In the Loop. It is a crackling, uproarious film that sinks its teeth into the subject like a Rottweiler and never loosens its grip.
In the Loop's razor sharp, profanity-laden script, written by director Armando Iannucci and three collaborators uses language the way Bruce Lee movies use martial arts. Words are twisted and pulled in all directions to suit the speaker, carelessly tossing meaning aside whenever convenient. "Unofficially we can call anything whatever we want, " a character declares at one point. "I mean, unofficially, this is a shoe," he says, holding up a glass of water. It is the perfect film for a time when spin is reported as news, and the media is more interested in covering people yelling at each other about current events than actually reporting on the events themselves.
The film takes place in America and England during a run up to war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The story is set in motion when British Foreign Minister Simon Foster blunders with one poorly chosen word during a radio interview. He calls the war "unforeseeable." Damage control is immediately launched. "He did not say that!" The British Communications Director berates the press. "You may have heard him say that, but he did not say it!" Foster, for his part, is mystified when scolded that the war is neither "unforeseeable" nor is it "foreseeable," which would be even worse. He cannot master the political art of seeming to answer a question while saying nothing at all, and his attempts to clarify his statement to the media stack gaffes on top of each other like trucks in a fifty car pile up.
And on it goes, with the effects of Foster's slip of the tongue rippling through the political landscape. Watching In the Loop you are hit with the disturbing realization that the movie is much more accurate than anybody would care to imagine. The plot follows a group of midlevel politicos ranging from the Assistant Secretaries of Defense and State down to the twenty-something staffers scurrying through the halls of power working twenty hour days. We note with increasing alarm that little to none of their time is spent on discussion of policy or factual research. Rather, their days are absorbed in back-biting, professional jealousy, subterfuge, ego, spin, and general skullduggery. It is hard not to shudder when two characters casually rewrite the minutes from an important meeting, explaining that they are not a record of what was said, but should instead reflect, "a full record of what was intended to have been said."
I should be careful not to make In the Loop sound like some angry political screed - the screenplay never mentions any political leaders by name. It is first and foremost a comedy, one of the funniest of the last decade, and the most quotable since The Big Lewbowski. Like Dr. Strangelove it starts with the material of tragedy twists it a few degrees to show the humor in its absurdity. You can't help but think of Kubrick's film when Foster, in an attempt to be tough without actually doing anything as drastic as taking a position, says that he is not taking a stand, but is on the verge of taking a stand. There on the verge, he insists, he is standing his ground.
The cast is pitch-perfect down to the smallest speaking roles. Credit to director Iannucci for keeping everyone on the same tone. It is the definition of an ensemble performance, creating a series of three dimensional characters in a few brief strokes as the film zips along at its screwball pace. In the Loop is positively packed with performance any of which would be that standout in most other films, including James Gandolfini as a US general barely containing his temper as he pushes against the war, Anna Chlumsky as a staffer horrified to find that a memo she's written is the biggest political hot potato in Washington, and Tom Hollander, very funny as a man just smart enough to get into situations where he is the dumbest person in the room.
Even among this cast of heavy hitters mention must be made of Peter Capaldi's brilliant work as British Communications Director Malcolm Tucker. His live-wire performance belongs on a list with Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast and Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross, characters who dominate everyone on screen with their crazed force of personality and the vivid creativity of their profanity. There is a show-stopping scene where Capaldi goes toe-to-toe with James Gandolfini and come out on top. It is no easy feat to convince an audience that anybody could prevail against such a commanding presence as Gandolfini, but Capaldi does it here. It is an iconic comic creation.
I think it is easy to miss the level of achievement here. A bullseye like this comes along once every ten years. In the Loop so accurately captures the mood of its time that future generations of moviegoers will be able to look back and feel what is was like to through the Bush years the same way todays movies moviegoers can watch Wag the dog to see what it was like at the end of the Clinton administration or Dr. Strangelove to feel what is was like at the height of Cold War hysteria.
Verdict: In the Loop is a must-see movie with a script that earns comparisons with Joseph Heller's Catch 22. It would make a great double feature with The Hurt Locker since the full impact of the film comes when you realize that this collection of nitwits, bureaucrats, and lunatics have started an honest-to-God war. You'll never watch the news the same way again. 10 out of 10.