Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In the Loop

A very funny and profane vérité farce, In the Loop is a vicious, cynical and thoroughly edifying skewering of the run-up to the Iraq war, albeit thinly disguised behind references to a generic Middle Eastern war and fictional stand-ins for real-life political players. (Presumably, it didn’t want anyone to confuse it with a documentary, so names had to be changed to protect the guilty.) Armando Iannucci directs this adaptation of his excellent BBC series, The Thick of It, transferring a couple of characters from the series and otherwise finding new parts for his usual cast. Perhaps that’s why this film doesn’t feel like a weak retread of the series—as is usually the case with most television adaptations—but rather an expansion into fruitful new realms of comedy.

It helps that the series has yet to really push the juxtaposition between high-powered international politics and mundane local riding affairs—a fairly rich source of comedy, to judge by the film. Scenes set in Washington where officials plot the fate of nations butt against scenes in a British neighbourhood where the collapsing wall of a minister’s riding office threatens to crush an old woman’s greenhouse (Steve Coogan provides a fine cameo as her indignant son). The local scenes do a nice job of deflating the glamour of authority, but even more impressive is how dexterously Iannucci weaves the international and local plots together, providing the film’s gut-punch ending.

But be it on television or in the movie theatre, the primary appeal of Iannucci’s comic creation remains the same—that of a relentlessly verbal comedy that exuberantly savages the power of language in politics and the compromised relationship between press and government. In one notable gag, Tom Hollander’s dithering cabinet minister has to bury his reservations about a war in the Middle East behind ambiguous comments to the press, as per the dictates of his party. As a result of his fumbling evasions, he finds himself turned into a tool in the debate between the hawks and doves in the American administration, both sides using the minister’s cryptic statements as proof of the British government’s support for their own stance on the war. He even gets turned into a bumper sticker, with one of his more baffling lines (“Climb the mountain of conflict”) taken out of context and turned into a hawkish motto. You couldn’t ask for a more concise summary of the problems of reasoned political debate in our reductive age.

Even more to the point is the film and series’ signature comic touch—the imaginative, elaborate torrents of invective spewed by the spin doctors, director of communications Malcolm Tucker (a masterful turn by Peter Capaldi) and Jamie McDonald, his chief attack dog and “the crossest man in Scotland.” Aside from the curious pleasure of hearing thick Scottish accents rain curses down upon priggish Brits and Americans, both characters revel in the brute power of language, each spouting endlessly inventive inventories of where to stick what until the people around them are left cowed. It’s commonplace to laugh at the linguistic manipulations employed in political spin, but the film takes this to new heights of absurdity by showing language used to bludgeon people into subservience.

The handheld camera—The Thick of It is not just a title but also a stylistic manifesto—always keeps the farce from becoming too overdetermined. Jokes jump out of the steady buzz and commotion to grab you by the throat unexpectedly. You might very well find yourself laughing before you even realize what’s so funny. This is a rare kind of comedy, one that is vulgar and yet perceptively intelligent, angry and yet still hilarious. If you think satire means some sort of annoying kind of comedy where you never laugh out loud, this film should put those illusions to rest—along with any lingering notions about the efficacy of the press and government in modern democracy.

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