In 'Locker' and 'Loop,' war from two worlds

On opposite sides of the war room: "In the Loop" and "The Hurt Locker." (IFC and Summit Entertainment)
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; 12:00 AM

At first glance, "The Hurt Locker" and "In the Loop" don't appear to have much in common. One is a drama. The other is a satire. The former was directed by an American woman (Kathryn Bigelow) best known for action-thrillers like "Point Break" and "Strange Days," the latter by a Scottish native (Armando Iannucci) made famous for his work on British comedy series like "I'm Alan Partridge."

But put these two acclaimed films together, something that's easy to do since both arrive today on DVD and Blu-ray, and you've got an incredibly powerful war-movie double feature, one that examines the machinations behind global conflict from vastly different but equally rewarding perspectives.

Most of the people who see "The Hurt Locker" ($26.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray) will never have served in Iraq, let alone on a U.S. army team charged with the dicey task of diffusing bombs. But after watching this film -- which is nominated for three awards at this Sunday's Golden Globes and poised to receive at least a couple of Oscar nods come February -- they will gain a palpable sense of what it must be like to work beneath the punishing heat of a Baghdad sun circa 2004, fiddling with the mess of entangled wires that mean the difference between maintained order and life vs. sudden detonation and death.

Grounded by the detail-oriented screenplay by journalist Mark Boal, Bigelow's immersive directing style and convincing performances from the strong ensemble cast, including break-out star Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker" allows us to become cinematically embedded with these soldiers, witnessing in a new, unforgettable way the swirl of adrenaline fixes and legitimate fear that defines their daily existence.

"In the Loop" ($19.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray) puts its audience at the epicenter of an entirely different set of war crises: those of the political, often absurdist variety. Sort of a cross between "Dr. Strangelove" and an episode of the original "Office," this pseudo-spin-off of Iannucci's TV show, "The Thick of It," follows the mad scramble that ensues among UK and U.S. government officials desperate to a. prevent war in the Middle East, or b. engage in war in the Middle East, but most definitely c. protect their precious reputations.

Hurtling along with the speed of a political scandal spreading through the blogosphere, "In the Loop" is a wicked, funny and, in the tradition of all solid satire, wildly exaggerated look at the self-absorbed bloviators whose focus on career advancement and personal gain ultimately force the kind of guys we meet in "The Hurt Locker" to put their lives at risk. Naturally, none of these people ever has to deal with a live bomb, unless it's of the f-variety. (And those, incidentally, fly pretty frequently, thanks to the spittle-spewing, perpetually enraged prime minister's press secretary, played by Peter Capaldi.) No, their biggest problems involve spinning their way out of bumbled radio interviews and figuring out where a top-secret war committee, sneakily named the Future Planning Committee, will convene.

"In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is king," proclaims State Department official Linton Barwick (David Rasche) at one point. Those sorts of ridiculous observations are uttered every few seconds during "In the Loop." And all a viewer can do is guffaw as quickly as possible and hope he doesn't miss the next patently ridiculous "truism" one of the characters -- portrayed by a fleet-footed ensemble that includes James Gandolfini, Tom Hollander, Steve Coogan and Anna Chlumsky -- delivers.

Both "The Hurt Locker" and "In the Loop" come with limited extras, including marginally informative making-of featurettes. Fortunately, though, each release boasts one genuinely worthwhile special feature. On "Locker," that's the commentary track from Bigelow and Boal, which shares even more details about the realities the cast and crew, as well as actual members of the military, confront in the line of duty. (Those protective Kevlar suits donned by bomb deactivators and the actors in the film? They typically weigh 80 pounds. And if the smoke bomb in one scene looks particularly convincing, that's because it's an actual bomb loaned to the production by the government of Jordan, where the movie was shot.)

Meanwhile, "In the Loop" keeps those aforementioned quips coming during 28 minutes of consistently hilarious deleted scenes. When one government underling attends a fancy Georgetown cocktail party and notes, "It's like 'Gone With the Wind,' with snacks," Capitol Hill insiders will giggle. But when a State Department diplomatic specialist played by Mimi Kennedy says, with a straight face, "He has the ear of the President, and that is one of the two or three best orifices to communicate with the President through," they may be cracking up from now until the next Congressional recess.

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