Washington Post Staff Writer
July 24, 2009
To American audiences, "In the Loop," a hard-edged British political satire, will feel like an evil version of "The West Wing," with hyper-speed dialogue that roars with more ferocity than a cable news debate between the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers. It is profane, filled with manic type-A sociopaths big-footing their way to the top over friend and foe, and its view of politics is fundamentally cynical.
To British audiences the characters, the improvisatory acting, the documentary-style camera technique and the expletive-laden dialogue are already familiar. "In the Loop" is an extension of a television comedy franchise, "The Thick of It," developed by Scottish comedian-director-producer Armando Iannucci. Is it a successful extension? If you are already invested in the series, perhaps. For audiences new to the wild world of the prime minister's trash-talking communications chief, Malcolm Tucker -- same breed, same style, even the same wiry body type as our own political Rottweiler, Rahm Emanuel -- this transatlantic drama of war and politics will feel overstuffed, unedited and not always coherent. Kind of like TV.
The story follows the run-up to a critical vote in the United Nations, which will likely lead to a U.S.-led war in the Middle East. The parallels to the invasion of Iraq are obvious, but implicit. David Rasche stars as Linton Barwick, a warmonger in the State Department, and James Gandolfini plays Lt. Gen. George Miller, an armchair commander who opposes the conflict. But the series is more interested in complex internal political squabbles and petty dramas than geopolitical context. This is about politics as blood sport, not politics as a means to a better world.
Comic potential energy is front-loaded into the film with a very British plot device: A mild-mannered, somewhat hapless minor government minister (in charge of international development) is thrust onto center stage when he muffs a couple of interviews, leaving the impression that he is in favor of a war he opposes. The bumbling Simon Foster (played by Tom Hollander) has his roots in novels by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, about little men with no agenda who are suddenly and egregiously over-endowed with influence. Like the genteel gardening columnist thrust into the middle of an African meltdown in Waugh's "Scoop," Foster is inept, well-intentioned and utterly unprepared for the big leagues.
His rise and fall might be enough for a good film. But "In the Loop" is a voracious narrative, with a television metabolism, and it needs subplot, distraction, minor characters and a never-ending sequence of playground tantrums. Iannucci might have pursued any number of deeper thoughts: The difference between American and British politics, the way language games can drag the world along with them, leading us to disaster like a tedious argument of insidious intent. It might even have underscored the danger and calamity of war, to give its satire more Swiftian gravitas.
But "In the Loop" won't go there, or anywhere. It shows us the supposed inside of politics -- the overgrown children, the grievances nursed since days in Oxbridge -- and it won't leave the claustrophobic world of rapid patter, poetic name-calling and inventive invective. It spirals and gyres around its characters until the stopwatch of the plot has run out, and then it ends.
Film should do more than television. "In the Loop" is tremendous fun, at times, especially in its vicious power plays and betrayals. But it has no view of politics, no seriousness, no message and in the end, no redeeming value beyond entertainment. Which is to say, it's like spending 106 minutes watching high-quality cable television, except you're in a theater and can't multitask your ironing, bills and stomach crunches.
Contains gratuitous quantities of adult language and some sexual scenes.