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07.21.09

Laughing Away the Bush Years

James Gandolfini stars in a hilarious new British satire that makes light of the American government’s Iraq blunders.

Abrasive and hilarious, In the Loop is the best, most biting political satire since Wag the Dog—and more intriguingly specific than that now-classic film about a fictional war that exists only on television. British director Armando Iannucci’s new cross-cultural comedy is an absurdist take on the power plays and bumbling among British and American officials during the runup to an unmistakably Iraq-like conflict. Secrets and lies are everywhere in a plot fraught with Bush-era echoes: faulty British intelligence fed to the Americans, who are secretly planning a war both countries still pretend to be open-minded about.

Topical humor usually has such a flickeringly short life span that it’s dated before it arrives on screen. Oddly, In the Loop, (which was shown at several festivals and is just opening now) plays better today than it did in the early days of the Obama administration.

When I first saw the movie in April—in those early months of Obama-ism, filled with optimism and sheer relief—it seemed like a witty period piece. You could leave thinking, “Thank goodness we’re rid of those guys.” What changed to make it seem so much more immediate? Nothing the current president has or hasn’t done. But bad old Bush revelations keep creeping into the news, most recently with reports about Dick Cheney instructing the CIA not to tell Congress about an anti-terror program.

The reminder that we still live in the long, dark shadow of all that secrecy gives an extra jolt to a movie that is precisely about Bush-Cheney style deceptions. Now we leave the movie thinking we’re still not out of the fog.

Beneath its timeliness, In the Loop is scathingly comic for more basic reasons. As in the best satire, Iannucci and his superbly sharp cast stray ever-so-slightly from realism, playing the most exaggerated scenes absolutely straight. The British prime minister’s ferret-y communications director, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), who spouts huge mouthfuls of venom, begins to lose control of the spin when a hapless government minister, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), blurts out that war is “unforeseeable.” (Malcolm can see war coming; he just isn’t ready to say so.) Soon the British are in Washington meeting, wrangling and maybe being exploited by their allies. Among those ever-arrogant and dismissive Americans are two high-level anti-war colleagues irate that they’ve been kept out of the loop about a secret U.S. war-planning committee: an ambitious undersecretary of state (Mimi Kennedy) and a Pentagon general (James Gandolfini).

Gandolfini is especially funny, with brilliantly understated comic delivery. He and the undersecretary sneak off from a party for a quick conference and find themselves in a little girl’s bedroom, where the general uses a pink-and-purple talking calculator (the film is great at ludicrous throwaway touches) to explain why the U.S. doesn’t have enough troops for a successful invasion. The number of troops available equals “the amount that’s going to die.” He adds commonsensically, “And at the end of a war, you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.”

The secrets and lies go beyond pure politics to include office backstabbing and illicit affairs. When one of Foster’s aides has a fling with his American counterpart, he explains it to his girlfriend by saying as earnestly as he can, “Maybe on some level, subconsciously, it was a last-ditch attempt to stop this awful war.” She isn’t falling for what she calls his ”anti-war shag” defense.

Gandolfini is especially funny, with brilliantly understated comic delivery. He and the undersecretary sneak off from a party for a quick conference and find themselves in a little girl’s bedroom, where the general uses a pink-and-purple talking calculator.

And there is so much silliness—including a high-voltage argument in a meditation room at the United Nations—you never feel that you’re watching a message movie. But the film gains a sharper-than-ever edge as the fumbling turns sinister, as active deception on both the British and American sides manipulate the path to war. In the Loop keeps you laughing so hard you might not realize how devastating its theme is until the movie is over.

Television’s quicker turnaround time is usually better suited to news-driven comedy than film’s, and in fact Iannucci and his movie come out of television. He is better known in Britain, as the writer and director of smart TV satires, including Steve Coogan’s mock talk show I’m Alan Partridge, and The Thick of It, which inspired In the Loop (the film is virtually a spinoff). Now the news cycle has handed him a lucky break.

In real life, the idea of hearing more revelations about Bush-y secrets, or enduring some special prosecutor’s investigation, is exhausting. But the relentless Bush-Cheney shadow has enhanced the already-funny In the Loop, so there is at least one good thing they’ve contributed to the culture.

Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew