April 9, 2009

In The Loop (2009)


Director: Armando Iannucci

106 min


London and Washington, D.C., the present. Simon Foster, Minister for International Development is interviewed by the press and accidentally declares that war in the Middle East is ‘unforeseeable’. Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s foul-mouthed Director of Communications is enraged since war is in the planning stages. US assistant secretary for diplomacy Karen Clarke, whose staff have prepared a report that discourages war, attempts to exploit Foster’s statement with her ally in the military, General Miller. Tucker sends Foster to Washington, D.C. whilst working with the neo-con Linton Barwick to produce an intelligence dossier to support the move towards war. Foster’s researcher, Toby, accidentally reveals to a friend who works for CNN that Barwick has a secret war committee, which prevents Clarke being able to sabotage it as planned.

When the case for war is presented to the UN, Toby asks his ex-girlfriend, Suzy, to leak Clarke’s report to the BBC. Tucker’s deputy, Jamie goes on the warpath in the Foreign Office to discover who leaked the report. Foster deliberates over whether to resign, although he becomes distracted by a constituency issue where the garden wall of his office is threatening to collapse into his neighbour’s garden. Tucker encourages the BBC to run with this story, rather than the leaked report and re-edits the report to make it appear more supportive of war. The UN Security Council back the Anglo-American resolutions, and Miller revokes his support for Clarke. Tucker sacks Foster for the constituency issue and is replaced by a new Minister.


‘The Thick Of It’ has been one of the highest regarded British comedies of recent years. A satire of contemporary British politics, it reveals with frightening honesty, what probably transpires within the corridors of power. At its heart was Malcolm Tucker, loosely based on Blair’s own Director of Communications, Alistair Campbell. A foul-mouthed Scottish bully, Tucker sets the political agenda, intimidates Ministers and civil servants alike and manipulates the media, all for the benefit of the New Labour government. Contrasting Tucker’s efficient means of getting things done was an incompetent Minister; in ‘The Thick Of It’, it was Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham), in ‘In The Loop’, it’s Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), who can’t help but put his foot in his mouth. Not content with describing war as unforeseeable, despite the government’s wish to support an American invasion of the Middle East, he complicates things even further by attempting to get himself out of his own mess (“to walk the road of peace, sometimes we have to climb the mountain of conflict”).

How someone with the sheer levels of ineptitude of Foster managed to get promoted to Cabinet level isn’t the issue. Iannucci’s point is that in these media-fixated times with detailed arguments replaced to soundbites and image being everything, Foster is perhaps the archetypal New Labour minister; handsome, well-meaning, but ultimately with no substance whatsoever. Even the final scenes, after Foster has left office and is replaced by a “Blair babe”, with whom Tucker is dissatisfied with in just a couple of minutes, suggest a conveyor belt of similarly talented politicians but with the real power wielded by civil servants and unelected advisers.

It’s no coincidence that Judy, Foster’s own Director of Communications is by far the most well-adjusted and intelligent of the film’s protagonists and is the source of the temporary hubris dished out to Tucker, when he has to go crawling to her to discover just what Foster is up to in Washington. For the benefit of extending the farce that plays out in Washington, Judy is left behind in London, and Foster is accompanied by Toby, who demonstrates a sense of opportunism and betrayal that means he might well get ahead in politics. Unfortunately, this means that Judy’s role is slightly underwritten, just there to favourably contrast with the idiots and sneaks she works with. We’re used to these characterisations from Iannucci’s previous work. It’s how he portrays those in the Washington corridors of power that’s interesting. Where Tucker, and consequently Foster and Toby speak in inventive profanity-ridden tones, the Americans talk in riddles, renaming committees to exclude those who’d derail conflict. But like in London, there’s just as much double-dealing and exploitation going on, with even the sceptical Miller changing his tune when the political wind rushes headlong into war.

What ultimately will be disturbing about ‘In The Loop’ is that the events depicted within the film reflect those in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iannucci smartly doesn’t refer to Iraq specifically, just intervention in an unnamed Middle Eastern country but the parallels are certainly there. Tucker invokes the suicide of David Kelly by telling Foster he’ll hound him into an assisted suicide after he screws up once too often and also “sexes up” the intelligence dossier put forward to the UN security council, which is treated with the utmost disdain by the British and Americans. If one imagines that this is how the war that has cost billions of dollars and cost hundreds and thousands of lives was decided upon and planned, with a combination of incompetence and cynicism, then we ought to be worried. Of course Iannucci probably uses a lot of dramatic license for both his comedy series and his film, and always views things from the low levels of government – you’ll notice that we never see the Prime Minister or President or any Cabinet meetings – but those characters involved here are involved in decision making that has enormous consequences.

There’s also a concern that comedy series with short episodes haven’t always translated into successful full-length features in the past. Iannucci manages to navigate this problem with some ease and he doesn’t actually have to stray at all from the filming methods used for ‘The Thick Of It’. ‘In The Loop’ is produced in a docudrama style, with handheld camerawork, and even features the same writing team from the original series. Because there’s no direct American money involved in the film, Iannucci has been able to remain independent in his vision and hasn’t had to make concessions to American financiers or the American market. How it plays over there though might be another issue, although anti-Bush cinema has proved successful in the past. However, in post-Blair Britain and post-Bush America, perhaps Iannucci’s timing is a little off. Given the wave of optimism in the States after the election of President Obama, who knows whether the cynicism and honesty of ‘In The Loop’ will capture the public mood?


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