Incompetent minister Simon Foster (Hollander) is sent to Washington after making contradictory comments about possible war in the Middle East.
As cinematic subgenres go, political satire doesn’t really rival the superhero blockbuster. While Soderbergh and Clooney take politics straight (Traffic, Syriana, HBO show K Street), and the likes of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan tangentially explore the perils of bureaucracy and procedure, Hollywood generally thinks of ‘D. C.’ as referring to comic books rather than Washington.
Why? First, politics is dull — or believed to be dull by people who don’t really know anything about politics. Second, politics is transitory — or believed to be transitory by people who don’t really know anything about politics. So, it’s considered the preserve of television, which can react more-or-less instantly to breaking news.
Now, strolling into the big-screen political desert like an ice-cream merchant in the Sahara comes Armando Iannucci — a man to whom statues should already be erected, for co-creating seminal news satire The Day Today (buy it). And, yes, his feature debut has its roots in television, sharing some characters and a tone with his BAFTA-winning series, The Thick Of It. But In The Loop doesn’t feel boxed in, in terms of subject-matter, style or current affairs. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the show, or are particularly politically in the know: most of us have met people like the bullies, opportunists and passive-aggressive backstabbers on display here.
The set-up shadows, loosely, the drive for the invasion of Iraq, with various avatars for real-life politicos. So, you have Peter Capaldi as a foul-mouthed Scottish spin doctor reminiscent of Alastair Campbell, James Gandolfini as a peace-pushing general who bears relation to Colin Powell, and David Rasche as a hideous conflation of former Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Republican hawk John Bolton. There’s also a dodgy dossier, flip-flopping at the United Nations and Tom Hollander as the hapless minister — an avatar for anyone in New Labour — whose gibbering pronouncements about potential war in the Middle East are latched onto by vying political factions.
Hollander is either utterly brilliant or a complete moron, such is his credibility as a man so far out of his depth he needs armbands. Gina McKee is delightfully sardonic as his civil service handler, and Chris Addison makes for a marvellous Everyman, undone by his amoral aspirations. Then there’s Capaldi, of course, ripping through the profanity-strewn script — and a good deal of improvisation, feeding the intimate, documentary style — with rare relish.
Iraq isn’t named, because Iannucci is savvy enough to understand the role of idiocy, ambition and fundamentalism in any conflict, in any age. Politics isn’t transitory, it’s timeless. And so is great satire. While the rat-tat-tat gag-rate dips a little in the final third — with an angry constituent subplot that proves necessary but never feels essential — In The Loop is still an endlessly quotable, worryingly authentic exploration of how things get done.
Spinal Tap meets Strangelove. A satirical demolition of Whitehall and Washington: politically astute, hilarious and terrifyingly real.