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The West Wing
IN THE LOOP, 2009
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison, James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy, David Rasche, Gina McKee
As the United States and the United Kingdom prepare to invade a Middle Eastern country, political advocates from governments try desperately to either support the proposed war effort, or stop it.
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Making bold and undeniable allusions to the political doctors and their spin campaigns leading to the Iraqi War, Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci (creator of the BBC’s “The Thick of It’) takes audiences behind the scenes of the British and American governments in order to present a brutal depiction of how miscommunication and personal vengeances affects the outcomes leading to global catastrophes.
Nominated for a 2009 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Iannucci and his team of writers have penned a script that is an obsidian black rock of cynical comedy. When the actors are not directly screaming at one another with razor-sharp barbed threats, they are smilingly insulting them to their faces as they degrade their characters’ careers and personal lives. This is not an uplifting movie with a happy-ending tied together by sensational and traditional Hollywood resolutions. It is, therefore, remarkably accurate and the funniest movie I have seen all year.
When the Minister for International Development, Simon Foster (played by Tom Hollander, portraying the same kind of graceless confidence that would make Ricky Gervais both proud and upset) fumbles during a BBC interview that a war between the Middle East is “unforeseeable”, administrators for the United States jump on the feeble politician’s poor choice of words in an effort to provide support for the proposed invasion. The more Foster tries to pull his office out of the quicksand, the more the American spin-doctors are enabled to use his testimony against his failed intentions. Before long, Foster is rebuking his former ambitions and starts looking for an up-side to the war.
This is one of those few political satires that does not center squarely on the media as the principal agitators in the ensuing madness of bicker regarding “he said, he said”. Instead, the plot points a finger that is shaking with laughter at the powers-that-be who actually process the paperwork and speak to cameramen when they should keep their unstoppable lips sealed. Enraged over Foster’s appetite for his own foot, the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker sends the idiotic figurehead to Washington, D.C. along with two of his aides, veteran assistant Judy Malloy (Gina McKee) and first-day-in-the-office newcomer Toby Wright (Chris Addison).
Before progressing further with this immensely entertaining plotline, it is necessary to reflect on the explosive character of Malcolm Tucker. Taking definite cues on the devastating behavior of Rahm Emanuel as well as Tony Blair’s Director of Communications Alastair Campbell, “The Thick of It” cast-member Peter Capaldi delivers a performance that is menacing, frightening, and absolutely hysterical. His portrayal of Malcolm Tucker is an infected pit-bull laying wasteland to the egos and career aspirations of all whom he contacts or even sees from a distance. Vulgar and misanthropic, his character embodies not so much The Boss From Hell, but someone much worse from the Dark Ages.
As Foster and his hapless assistants engage in the Washingtonian squabbles both for and against the war, they encounter bloodthirsty State Department head Linton Barwick (played by David Rasche), war-opposing Lt. General George Miller (an enticing and appropriate James Gandolfini), and State Secretary Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy, providing comic dynamite). Everyone here knows how to play the game of distorting sworn testimonies and manipulating wordplay.
Instead of focusing on the geopolitical agendas spewed from both governments, the subtext that belongs “In the Loop” is more about the destructive effect of miscommunication and manipulation of literature in order to achieve diplomatic policy. Is it right to rearrange text of committee language in order to achieve one’s own political pursuits? Iannucci’s screenplay is not concerned with ethical questions like these, because the answer is obvious. Of course not! Does this unethical system of mishandling information happen anyway? Again, the answer is obvious.
As the British and American administrators trade trans-Atlantic threats, insults, and false promises to one another, the context becomes clear that a Middle Eastern war is indeed inevitable. Lt. General Miller sadly reflects on the upcoming loss of human life and ironically delivers the film’s darkest and most honest line: “At the end of a war, you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.”
Taking center stage in all of this chaos is the theme that Anglo-American government diplomacy is currently under the control of disturbingly young staff members and personal assistants. They are not only pushing the paperwork, but are in fact creating the spin for their superiors who are busy playing squash and watching football. For example, sharp-witted Anna Chlumsky plays Liza Weld, Karen Clarke’s opportunistic intern. When Liza’s own paper on international relations is unexpectedly reviewed in a Congressional committee, the information is leaked to the news media and a hunt begins for whoever called CNN.
Soon the testimony reaches Barwick’s desk, where the information is dissected and rearranged to the point that it becomes an argument in the opposite direction. As the British Toby Wright tries to pump Liza for information, it becomes relevant that these global crises are at the mercies of the inexperienced. Again, this is a likely and frighteningly accurate assumption regarding political powers that can declare war.
There is comedy strong enough to bring down the roof of The White House in a scene when Malcolm Tucker is about to be debriefed by a 22-year-old White House executive. The fury of Capaldi’s Tucker is immeasurably offensive and hilarious. I recommend rewinding this scene after first viewing it just to make sure you heard all the insults.
Since the overall context of the movie is meant to be realistic, Iannucci struggled to make the set design unassumingly simple and non-glamorous.
According to the British newspaper “The Observer”, Iannucci declared that the “anti-West Wing production design” was meant to eliminate the distracting notion of elegant style in political environments. In fact, the writer/director gained access to the US Department of State by declaring he was a member of the BBC for a non-existent interview. Unopposed by the security staff, he used his time during his unsupervised visit by taking photos and jotting notes for his production designers. For the scenes taking place at the Prime Minister’s offices, the production was shot at the actual offices with handheld cameras at 10 Downing Street in London. Therefore, the set design has a visually accurate look and feel implying that government work is not only stressfully imposing, but also bland and hopelessly mundane.
For those interested in seeing more of this brand of satire, spend twenty-four minutes watching the film’s deleted scenes. Unlike most deleted segments, the scrapped shots from “In The Loop” are full of witty banter and pointed confrontations that were probably edited purely for time constraints. It may also be worth your time to become engrossed in “The Thick of It”, Iannucci’s episodic comedy series detailing more elements of the spin war between government officials and helpless civil servants. The genesis of Michael Tucker’s character begins within this series, and is again played by Peter Capaldi. Many other of the same actors from “In the Loop” also appear in “The Thick of It”, but play different characters.