Most U.S. political satire not on Comedy Central is of a certain form nowadays. The tone is light and joshing or picayune and shallow: poking fun at the speech patterns or physical tics of politicians; making the most superficial attributes (Fat! Funny accent!) of a person or institution an engine for punch lines -- impressions rather than characterizations. Such satire is relatively easily cranked out, but it's not serious about being funny or being thoughtful.
In the Loop (2009, Directed by Armando Iannucci) is not that type of squishy satire. It's brutal and abject and hilarious. Some of the most shameful political events of recent years (the leadup to a really stupid war) are modified a bit for fiction's sake. A crew of venal, stupid, feckless, cowardly, selfish -- and sometimes even relatively decent and well-meaning -- characters are set loose to relive them.
The greatest joy of In the Loop is the dialogue: at times sophisticated and at times horrifically profane -- and sometimes both at once. Rapid, sometimes overlapping, full of allusions and absurdities. Much will be written about the baroque maledictions of Scottish spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi as a reanimation of Alastair Campbell, more-or-less Blair's Rove), and he's indeed pyrotechnical in his brutish profanity, but the dialogue flows naturally from all of the characters and their situations and is full of gags that made me laugh every few minutes.
Iannucci and his writers bless the actors by writing a fairly tight script but encouraging them to improvise and flesh out their characters. This semi-improvised style is everywhere nowadays, but it's rarely done this well: the quality of the cast and story makes it seem natural rather than more of the arid jokesmanship that is so common.
The actors come through splendidly, with Capaldi making a scrawny Scotsman into a fearsome figure. But I most enjoyed the take of Chris Addison (as Toby Wright, the young ministerial aide), who routinely made me guffaw with some of the best lines delivered well and ideal reaction shots. Gina McKee, as a competing aide, deserves special notice for sublime adroitness and self-assurance that could have fit into a political drama--except she was comical to boot. Tom Hollander (as Minister Simon Foster) played not just a punching bag for Malcolm Tucker but a three-dimensional character with a nuanced arc that made me feel for him.
Many aspects of the plot are drawn from actual events: dodgy dossiers, secret committees, unreliable informants. To those who know about the lead-up to the Iraq war these are sadly familiar, though transformed a bit. Since the film is not a political thriller but instead a kind of farce, some story points are not perfectly believable in real-world terms--farce rarely is. the absurdity added to the story works well in this realistic-seeming comic world.
This movie is right up my alley: some of my favorite UK comedy minds working on a political story I know fairly well, applying a great cast to do the work, and dealing with America, my home. But I watched it with Americans who were't familiar at all with these things and each of them loved In the Loop, too.
The UK / US tension works beautifully, and not just in a painful gag that turns Americans' jokes about British teeth back on us. The asymmetry of power amplifies the stereotypial British comedy figure of the put-upon loser. The sad sack minister Simon Foster (Hollander), is practically giddy that he will get to play in the big leagues with US policymakers. He comes, he sees, and he is conquered repeatedly -- but ultimately is done in by a tiny problem back home. Like Basil Fawlty or Alan Partridge or Mark Corrigan of Peep Show, he is ground to dust for our amusement. And I was more than amused.
Absolutely not for children, due to adult situations and filthy language.
A point of personal privilege. Some of my favorite British comedy writers wrote the film. In addition to Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong (of Mitchell & Web, The Thick of It, and the monumental Peep Show), Simon Blackwell (a writer for many of the funniest things in the past decade, including Armstrong & Miller, Moving Wallpaper, Monkey Trousers, and also The Thick of It), and finally Tony Roche, who the world owes much thanks to his great creation World of Pub.
Two more of my posts about In the Loop:
My preview from a US perspective, written before seeing it.
A collection of links, audio, and video about the film, centered around media related to the US theatrical release.