If a political era is lucky, the most virulent specimens of the most soul-deadening viruses of the day get the lethal injection of brilliant satire they deserve.
The think tank theoreticians of thermonuclear war got theirs with Dr. Strangelove, the careless, grandiose masters of the universe got theirs with The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the semantically gymnastic spinmeisters of the ‘90s got theirs with Wag the Dog. The unfortunate fact that In the Loop chugs in a couple years late, in U.S. theaters July 24, should not obscure the news that with this film, director Armando Iannucci gives the bullies of the Bush and Blair administrations the thrashing they deserve.
Neither Bush nor Blair—nor any high-office holder, for that matter—is mentioned in In the Loop; all the action takes place at some unidentified near-present under some unidentified regimes. But the capitals of Washington and London are clear enough, and so are the echoes of fudgy facts presented during the runup to the Iraq war to the United Nations and Congress and Parliament, and so is the attitude of the subalterns whose vanities, pretentions, ambitions, anxieties, and machinations help unleash the havoc. “The political buildup to the invasion of Iraq was both terribly tragic and farcical,” said Iannucci in an interview with The Daily Beast, “but that was a story I wanted to tell, the story of people engaged in office politics whose small dreams of empire-building have enormous consequences.”
The chief agents in the welter of dysfunctions that lead to war are the bullies, the ones who trample doubt and disagreement. Most extravagant among them is Malcolm Foster (Peter Capaldi), the prime minister’s scowling, snarling, vulpine director of communications, who protects the government’s message from prying journalists and careless-tongued officials. This he accomplishes like an oratorically gifted Luca Brasi by muscling transgressors with arias of insult. “You may have heard him say 'unforeseeable,’ but he did not say that, and that is a fact,’” we hear Malcolm early in the film barking on the phone to an editor, talking about a cabinet minister who did, in fact, use that wan word about a possibly pending Mideast conflict. “OK, OK, print 'unforeseeable.’ See what happens when I tell your wife about you and Angela Heaney at the Blackpool Conference. What would be best: an email or a phone call or what? Hey, I could write it on a cake with those little silver balls: 'Your hack husband betrayed you on October 4th, and congratulations on the new baby!’ Yeah, maybe it’s better to spike it.”
And that’s just a taste of the merry invective, much of it more profane, that follows. Malcolm smites hapless ministers, earnest civil servants, ambitious underlings, and his charges hip and thigh. Iannucci says he based Malcolm a bit on Blair spokesman Alastair Campbell and a bit on the Labor Party’s so-called Prince of Darkness Peter Mandelson, as well as "Downing Street’s hordes of anonymous enforcers, as they’re known, who defend their belief that events are controlled by how they’re perceived in the media."
Iannucci is a 46-year-old, improbably named Scottish writer and performer with a number of triumphs on British TV. In the Loop is his first film, but it has its roots in The Thick of It, a BBC series about a minor cabinet minister in Parliament and the regular thwackings he receives from Malcolm; the six original episodes and two subsequent specials can be seen in nine-minute increments on YouTube. He confesses to have spent three years trying to win a Ph.D. studying Paradise Lost. ”Satan is the real hero," says Iannucci. "The whole poem goes up whenever he tries to win people over to the dark side with his magnificent oratory. The same is true here: Malcolm uses sheer force of personality and sheer force of language to suck you in."
But Downing Street is just a supporting player in the war being distilled in Washington, where its chief advocate (for reasons entirely unexplained) is Assistant Secretary of State Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a bully of a very different stripe. Where Malcolm is a masher, Linton is Mr. Freeze. "I read how [Donald] Rumsfeld and [Paul] Wolfowitz functioned and how John Bolton functioned at the UN," says Iannucci. "It wasn’t an aggressive bullying, it was emotional, intellectual. They would cut people dead if they disagreed with them. When you disagreed with them, you stopped mattering." Anyone who has ever seen a Rumsfeld press conference will appreciate the way Rasche has channeled Rumsfeld’s inflections, especially his habit of hammering slow listeners with key words in his koans. "We have all the facts in this we need," Linton instructs an aide who has mentioned an unwanted white paper on the pros and cons of war. "We don’t need any more facts. In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is king." Much of the pleasure in In the Loop is watching Linton, with Malcolm’s assistance, using his single fact—the war is on—as a scythe against any objection. Some of these, by the way, are raised by a General Miller (something of a bully himself) delightfully played by James Gandolfini, who knows a thing or two about playing bullies.
What’s amazing about In the Loop is that even as viewers know they’re watching fiction, and satirical fiction at that, there’s an unshakeable sense that yes, this is exactly how things must have happened. The sketches on Saturday Night Live amuse, the satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is smart and funny, but Iannucci has found the dark, hilarious, absurd heart of human frailty. The effect is deadly, challenging all pretentions of truth and honor and patriotism by draining the hot air that sustains them. Now at work on a second season of The Thick of It, Iannucci says he regularly hears from insiders who share reports of cock-ups and foibles; between them and the endless resources of human nature, he’s confident that his material will never dry up.
Iannucci says that at one point last year they thought of having a minister conclude that he wanted to be seen as more of a man of the people. He decided that he would walk from his office to the House of Commons, until his staff told him that while he could walk, his papers, being government property, would have to ride. “We rejected it as being too far out,” says Iannucci, “but then we learned that in order to seem more green, David Cameron, the head of the Tories in Parliament, rides a bike to work. Except that he’s followed by car where he keeps his shoes and shirt.”
So far, the politicians who are the object of Iannucci’s ridicule have had varying responses to his work. “Most of them get very excited when anyone makes a film or TV about their world,” says Iannucci. “I was talking to a senior member of Vice President Biden’s staff not long ago, and he said 'You’ll never guess who came to see us the other day! Bradley Whitford, who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing!’ And I thought, 'But you are Josh Lyman! You’re Josh Lyman every day!’” And in London, when they filmed outside Number 10 Downing Street, all the government enforcers—“all the little Malcolms”—came out to get their picture taken with Peter Capaldi.
But not everyone is a fan. “Alastair Campbell called the movie boring,” says Iannucci, an amused smirk curling the corner of his mouth. He knows that whatever he had created, it isn’t boring.
Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Spy, Time and Playboy, and is the author of the satirical novel The Coup.