by TOM NIXON
The only sitcom over the last decade I liked more than Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It was Arrested Development, which says a lot about how high my expectations were for this feature-length version. It’s not a The Thick of It movie, exactly, as there are only a handful of recurring characters and most have different names, plus the setting is rather more sprawling, concerned as it is with the lead-up to the war (in Iraq, no doubt, though that’s never made specific) on both sides of the Atlantic. But it’s made out of the same stuff; a razor-sharp satire revolving around a host of fast-talking higher-ups as they spin their political webs, whilst worming their way out of problems created by their own ineptitude and egomania. A breakneck, modernized, large-scale Yes Minister, for those of you up to speed on your classic British sitcoms.
Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the pathetic, bumbling Minister for International Development, says that “war is unforseeable” on national radio, then over-compensates the following day by suggesting publicly that to “walk the road of peace, sometimes you have to climb the mountain of conflict,” described with typical crudeness as sounding like a “nazi Julie Andrews” by the PM’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). Both of these positions deviate from the government’s “line,” and so cue a shit storm of biblical proportions, as just about every one of the big players in the UK and US government attempts to exploit his comments for their own ends. Iannucci inhabits the blink-and-miss-something chaos and clutter with jumpy handheld camerawork and superbly timed machine gun dialogue, and the jokes are reeled off every few seconds, based like any good satire on exaggerating without fundamentally changing the dynamics at work. It has been argued that this film is no longer topical, but it would be naïve to let the hope accompanying the Obama administration convince us that the political minefield has suddenly transformed into Eden. I’ve heard interviews with politicians who say that it’s deadly accurate, and perhaps more telling, politicians who’ve scoffed that it’s “dreadfully unfunny.”
Whilst the minister and his aides add an Officeesque brand of relatable, excruciating idiocy to the situation, In The Loop essentially orbits around Tucker, complete with Satanic glare and an almost impossibly deep well of expletives to choose from, as he turns up all over the place pulling strings, reeling off insults and generally attempting to cause whatever havoc is required to achieve his goals. His mastery of language, demonstrated most commonly via the art of the insult (usually dependent on absurd analogies and an array of pop culture references that he’s surely assimilated for this sole purpose), is the source of much hilarity and renders him almost a Shakespeareian anti-hero against the rather more humorless brand of pomposity exhibited by the likes of blustering General Miller (James Gandolfini) and intolerably smug warmonger Linton Barwick (David Rasche). He’s the crowning creative force in a parade of artists who, Hollywoodesque, play fast and loose with the truth whenever doing so contributes to the realization of their respective visions.
It’s hard for me to say how people unfamiliar with The Thick of It will react to In the Loop. It’s inferior, just a little, because it’s impossible to completely maintain the delirium over such a long runtime. It’s a fabulous TV episode strained a little awkwardly into a movie, in other words, as across this distance a handful of moments fall flat and you’re not always whipped up into the thing in the same way. It also succumbs to some gratuitous moments, such as a certain exchange between Malcolm and a man complaining about his cursing (essentially “look how offensive Malcolm is!” in big flashing lights), which spring from a misguided concern with attracting new followers at the expense of the narrative.
But these are minor nitpicks, and this is still tight as a drum, capable of juggling the grandest of gestures and the minutest of details with masterful pacing and timing. Lines like “it’s like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns” and “you may not believe that, and I may not believe that, but by God it’s a useful hypocrisy” are pure gold (most of the others are too rude to print). So are scenes such as Miller explaining the impracticalities of the war using a toy computer in a child’s bedroom, Foster and his aide grinning like idiots in a motorcade and joking that they ought to have hookers, the emergence of Malcolm’s even more offensive (and even more Scottish) second-in-command, and a deliciously outraged Steve Coogan pestering the minister over the relative triviality of a collapsing garden wall. The whole thing is richly quotable, performed with real nuance (and some amazing improv) considering the fervent pace, and in its depiction of politics as a farce of Machiavellian power games wherein language is the weapon of choice, it’s both side-splittingly ridiculous and uncomfortably authentic.