A thinly veiled spoof of Anglo-American diplomatic blundering and maneuvering in the lead-up to the second Iraq war, British-TV vet Armando Iannucci’s first film reminds us that loose lips don’t just sink ships—they also launch them. In the Loop, an acidly funny satire about politics and pomposity, shows that language is more than a virus: It’s a pandemic and a heat-seeking missile. The zing and sting of the film’s dialogue harks back to screwball comedy, but the frequent flourishes of profanity throughout suggest its own genre: screw-you-ball. In the Loop may be the only film in which grammatical mood serves as a plot point: “Take out the conditional. I want declarative sentences!” barks a spin-doctor to a flunky.
An expansion of the BBC Four series The Thick of It, which Iannucci created and ran for six episodes plus two specials from 2005 to 2007, In the Loop includes a few of the program’s regulars, notably Peter Capaldi, reprising his role as Malcolm Tucker, the demon-eyed, ninja-tongued director of communications for the Prime Minister. (“Fuckitty-bye!” is a favored departure line.) In the first of many bravura rage spirals, Tucker goes apoplectic after whimpering Minister for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), in the middle of a radio interview about combating dysentery in developing nations, makes the seemingly benign comment that the possibility of a U.S. war in the Middle East is “unforeseeable.” From diarrhea to logorrhea: Reamed out, Foster—aided by his newly arrived, wormy political adviser, Toby (Chris Addison, another Thick vet)—will preen, posture, recant, and bumble to placate his rabid Scot superior and ingratiate himself with visiting delegates from the U.S. State Department, serving up this word salad: “To walk the road of peace, sometimes you have to climb the mountain of conflict.”
From there, the film zig-zags between the hot spots of blather: 10 Downing Street, the power corridors of D.C., and the U.N., with a brief stop in Northampton, where the grandstanding Foster must deal with micro-local politics, fobbing off to Toby the complaint of a constituent (Steve Coogan, barely recognizable) about a crumbling wall. Shot, like The Thick of It, with zooming hand-held cameras to give a vérité feel, In the Loop becomes even more piquant with its real-life analogues, who vary in degrees of transparency. Tucker is clearly modeled on Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy; James Gandolfini’s dovish bear General Miller loosely suggests Colin Powell, much like cuss-averse State Department war-lover Linton Barwick (David Rasche) calls to mind a more hirsute Donald Rumsfeld.
Iannucci, who co-wrote the script with Thick-ers Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche, encouraged improvisation here, as he did for his TV show. Cast and crew offer a master class on how to do things with words, capturing with razor-sharp precision the maddeningly empty rhetoric of bureaucracy, the passive-aggressive badinage of territorial co-workers (brilliantly performed by Addison and Gina McKee as Judy, another aide to Foster), the pathetic feints of two-timing boyfriends, the eviscerating effect of linguistically deft insults, U.S.-U.K. misunderstandings, and, most accurately (and terrifyingly), the government’s use of an Orwellian lingua franca to obfuscate diabolical goals (as a cover, Barwick’s war group is called the Future Planning Committee). Not to detract from the pleasure of watching the consistently excellent actors, who enhance the dialogue’s bite with their body language, but the script of In the Loop is so rich that it could work as a radio play.
Many have compared In the Loop, which premiered at Sundance in January, favorably to Dr. Strangelove—a film that was released 45 years ago. A more recent point of reference is another movie that ended with the run-up to the Iraq War: Oliver Stone’s W., a psychobiography that strained for satire but whose wildly inconsistent tone settled most often for hammy aping. Words were mere ventriloquism. Should we learn British as a second language? With few exceptions (notably The Hurt Locker), most U.S. films about Iraq have been soggy melodramas trafficking in the imprecise discourse of emotions. Though hilarious, In the Loop is also a horror movie, its lacerating satire constantly reminding us of the all-too-real consequences of distorted, manipulated, and vitiated language.