Saturday, August 29, 2009

Film Review: In The Loop

Early in Armando Iannucci's hilarious political satire In The Loop, Britain's Secretary of State For International Development Simon Foster naively tells a radio interviewer that war in the middle east is unforseeable. As innocuous as this comment may seem at first, it suggests both that the British government has been considering war and that the Secretary believes war to be a bad idea. To cynical communications director Malcolm Howard, the Secretary's statement fails to toe the British government's offial line, which is . . . that the government has no line on a hypothetical war in the middle east because it has never considered going to war in the middle east. Howard tells the minister that, from now on, his public line on the war is to be that it is neither foreseeable nor unforseeable; not inevitable but not . . . evitable. If you think that things are starting to sound Orwellian, you're right - but they are only starting.

In The Loop is about how media spin effects the run-up to a war in an unnamed middle eastern nation, presumably Iraq, but it is about so much more than that: how disorganized government can be; how the most effective tool of persuasion in a meeting of bureaucrats is a loud voice and a poison tongue; how important decisions are made by over-worked, distracted people whose priorities are out of line, about how legitimate, carefully-researched policy considerations often take a back seat to the desire to say whatever it takes to one-up your rival or impress a pretty girl you used to go to school with, about how government secretaries can decide to go to war because the most articulate dove was too distracted by the pain from a botched dentist's appointment. In a running joke that is both hilarious and depressing, and to which anybody who has ever worked for a member of Congress can relate, Secretary Foster is repeatedly sidetracked at moments of genuine crisis by the controversy over the fact that the brick wall of his regional office is falling down, and threatening to collapse into a little old lady's garden behind the row house next door. In so many ways, being strong is less important than avoiding the appearance of being weak.

In a movie full of the most beautifully inventive, graphic, machine-gun profanity I have eer seen, Anthony Capaldi's performance as communications director Malcolm Howard stands alone. Exhibit one:

He spits out his Scottish-accented insults with hostility and menace that even his non-curse words hurt your ears. A lot of movies (Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, etc.) are known for their profanity, but in how many movies do you hear someone threaten to "punch you into paralysis," and really mean it? And, for all that, Howard isn't even the character described as "the crossest man in Scotland" - that distinction belongs to Jamie McDonald, who is introduced in the second half of the movie in a brilliant, Bringing Up Baby-style twist,

The movie's hand-held camera work and deliberately jumpy editing style may turn off some viewers, but its vitality and energy more than make up for what it lacks in polish. With the possible exception of James Gandolfini, the movie's stars are all old-pro-type character actors, and their combination of familiar faces and unfamiliar names is a perfect fit for the mid-level bureaucrats they play. The movie features ten or twelve memorable supporting characters, and dialogue that would be eminently quotable if it wasn't too dirty to use in mixed company. It plays like the bastard lovechild of Dr. Strangelove and the original British version of The Office. Only dirtier. Much, much dirtier. It is the best movie I've seen this year, and possibly the funniest movie I've seen since Borat.