In the thick of British warmongering

In the Loop avoids the lazy notion that Blair was Bush’s poodle and instead satirises Britain’s own war games.

Neil Davenport

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With the exception of The Damned United, few British films this past year have received the sustained hype of Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, the film version of the hit, BAFTA-award winning TV comedy series The Thick of It. Nine months before it went on general release Time Out London was already praising Iannucci’s big-screen venture. Subsequent reviews have not just been complimentary, they’ve been ecstatic.

And herein lies a dilemma for Iannucci and his crew: surely no film could possibly live up to the high praise showered over In the Loop? It could also be argued that the by now over-familiarity of The Thick of It’s style – docu-vérité camera work, bumbling Whitehall incompetents and eye-watering profanities – means that In the Loop won’t have the same jolting, juddering impact as the original TV series did.

Moreover, In the Loop was always going to be compared unfavourably to The Thick of It. So by this Monday afternoon, just three days after the film’s release, it seemed that everywhere I turned, friends, colleagues and the odd blogger were of the opinion that In The Loop is ‘all right’, ‘good’ even, but generally ‘not as good as the TV series’. Yet similar opinions were voiced about the two hour-long specials that were shown at the end of the The Thick of It series. Yet the now infamous ‘iPod rant’ in the first of those specials has become the programme’s defining moment. On this basis, it’s perhaps wise to watch In the Loop without the starry-eyed reviews flashing in one’s mind as this could lead to a classic case of a very good, very funny film being derailed by the hype surrounding it.

Any kneejerk ‘massive anti-climax’ complaints ought to be held in check by two indisputable facts. Firstly, In the Loop is one of the few British comedies that has successfully transferred half-hour TV episodes to a two-hour cinematic piece. We are not talking about Rising Damp: The Movie here. Iannucci and his team haven’t merely ‘cashed in’ on the success of The Thick of It, but have managed to sustain the show’s pace and quality in a more demanding medium. James Gandolfini, who plays the film’s military dove General Miller, reckons that it will do well in America – and I think he will be proven right. In the Loop is a British film but with international clout and appeal.

The second indisputable fact can be reduced to four words: The Boat That Rocked. Richard Curtis’ lamentable latest film should stand as a grim reminder of what has passed for British cinema comedy over the past 15 years: archaic representations of Britain; cringeworthy dad-jokes; cloying sentimentality; characters thinner than Peter Crouch; and a smug, all-luvvie cast. Perhaps The Boat That Rocked’s awfulness partly explains why so many reviewers have enthusiastically garlanded In the Loop.

Only a churl would try to deny the all-round hilarity of In the Loop. As with The Thick of It, the film’s bilious energy swirls around rottweiller PR chief Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi). And as the government’s manic spindoctor – famously inspired by Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell – he has to cajole, terrify and blackmail inept Cabinet ministers, journalists and research assistants into submission. Zipping back and forth between London and Washington, the international dimension of In the Loop means there is even greater scope for Tucker’s road-drilling abuse to pulverise fresh opponents.

Over in the US, murmurings of military intervention in the Middle East are animating Whitehall gossipmongers. The newly appointed Cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) unintentionally deviates from the government’s ambiguous line on military conflict by declaring that war was ‘unforeseeable’. Even after being metaphorically sprayed in hot horseshit by Tucker, Foster gives another disastrous interview by mumbling that Britain could ‘climb the mountain of conflict’. Foster’s gibberish means he is potentially a blank page for both America’s hawks, like Senator Linton Barwick (David Rasche), and doves, such as liberal assistant secretary Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and General Miller (Gandolfini), who try to use him to justify their cause.

In the Senate in Washington, and at the UN headquarters in New York, Foster’s inept interventions unwittingly raise the political temperature – and evoke memories of the Iraq War in 2003. It’s easy to see why many liberal-minded reviewers admire this film in a big way. Foster appears to be the ‘good guy’ who is both dazzled and bullied by the Americans into dragging Britain towards war. Indeed, In the Loop could provide a retrospective, positive gloss for Labour Party supporters who can point the finger of blame for war at domineering Americans. But Iannucci and scriptwriter Jesse Armstrong are too subtle and shrewd to produce a full-scale, Mark Thomas/Michael Moore style anti-American diatribe.

Despite offering sympathy for the hapless Foster, they also show how, behind the scenes, it is the British establishment that appears most bellicose and war-hungry. Tucker’s relentless cunning and back-handed tricks are all designed to ensure that the American hawks come out on top – it is, after all, in Britain’s national interest. The electrifying showdown between General Miller and Tucker offers a smarter alternative to the liberal-left script that Blair was simply Bush’s ‘poodle’ during the 2003 Iraq War. Here, Iannucci and Armstrong suggest that Britain’s influence on Washington was a crucial factor.

At the same time as events are snowballing overseas, back in the less glamorous locale of Leicester another story is brewing. Foster’s constituency building has a subsiding wall that is threatening to flatten next-door’s greenhouse. Confronted by the neighbour’s irate son Paul (played by Steve Coogan) at his weekly MP surgery, Foster vows to ‘sort it out’ but inevitably ignores it. This is a sly and less screeching dig at Westminster politicians. Not only is Foster openly contemptuous about his constituents, he is also out of touch. When Foster asks Paul quizzically ‘do you have a mobile phone?’ the constituent gives him a withering, ‘what-planet-are-you-on?’ look while pulling out a top-of-the-range handset. It’s not the film’s most side-splitting moment, but it accurately satirises the gap between ordinary citizens and the political class.

Indeed, the quality of the writing has been rightly praised. Iannucci’s team manage to combine Tucker’s blow-torch profanities with an eye for minor character development elsewhere. Gandolfini’s General Miller, for example, is particularly well observed and performed throughout. But not all of the settings work quite as well. In a bid to unleash the trademark verbal fireworks, some character and plot subtleties have been overlooked. Chris Addison’s adviser Toby is a poor relation to The Thick of It’s Ollie. Some of the most enduring scenes in the TV series/specials were Ollie’s superior, posh-boy sarcasm to his girlfriend and her male flatmates. Whereas so much of the dialogue here is manically hyper-real, the scenes with Ollie provided kitchen-sink believability without soft-peddling the gag rate.

The only similar slice-of-London-life scene during In the Loop is when Toby’s infidelity is caught out by his girlfriend down the pub. Perhaps more of this and In the Loop would have gelled together as a complete film rather than an erratic comedy vehicle. By having fewer ‘breather’ scenes of non-working life than the TV series did, the film’s pace is slightly too frenetic and disjointed. Some scenes end without plots being properly developed or explained. And although Gina McKee is a very good drama actress, it’s clear she lacks the necessary timing to do comedy acting well. When she dominates a scene the comedy becomes slightly awkward and flat – a first for Iannucci’s team.

Whatever its flaws, however, In the Loop is still a very funny and coolly observed portrait of militaristic power-games in Whitehall and Washington. For sheer wit and energy alone it leaves other Brit-film comedies for dead and makes The Boat That Rocked appear even more risible.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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