A far more bilious version of “Yes Minister” that skewers the British government’s eagerness to help justify the Bush Administration’s rush to war in Iraq, “In the Loop” is cynical, crass and nasty, but sporadically quite funny. As political satire, though, it lacks the finesse of “Minister”(or of Ian Richardson’s twin masterpieces about Machiavellian P.M. Francis Urquhart, “To Play the King” and “The Final Cut”), and it certainly doesn’t deserve mention in the company of a film like “Dr. Strangelove,” or even “Wag the Dog.” It’s more like an acerbic reworking of the Hugh Grant episode from “Love Actually.” Still, it has moments you’d not want to miss, and keeps a headlong pace courtesy of director Armando Iannucci.
The hapless “hero” of the piece is British Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander, playing him as a wimpy though agreeable schlub) who earns a profanity-laden tongue-lashing from Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, who seems perpetually on the verge of bursting a blood vessel), the P.M.’s high-strung Director of Communications, for wading into the politics of the prospective invasion by calling war “unforeseeable.” Foster’s remark catches the ear of U.S. State Department dove Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), who’s fighting a rear-guard action against her virulently hawkish superior, Assistant Secretary Linton Barwick (David Rasche) and sees Foster as a potential ally. That explains why Foster’s soon on his way to the States, where Barwick and Tucker are busily making a case for invasion for presentation to the U.N.—based on manipulated intelligence, of course. He’s accompanied by his new aide, fumbling Toby (Chris Addison).
There are all sorts of other figures circling around the frantic action: Foster’s top advisor, brittle Judy (Gina McKee); Toby’s girlfriend (Olivia Poulet), an assistant to another minister; Clarke’s aide Liza (Anna Chumsky), who’s written a paper against invasion and also happens to be an old schoolmate of Toby’s; her ambitious rival Chad (Zach Woods, a memorably sneering cad); a goofy constituent of Foster’s (Steve Coogan) who’s complaining about a wall surrounding the minister’s office that threatens to collapse onto his property; an aide to Tucker (Paul Higgins) who’s even more poison-tongued than he is; and an American general (James Gandolfini, gruff as usual) who’s an old flame of Clarke’s and joins her to try to obstruct Barwick.
“In the Loop” is about the power games in the Anglo-American alliance and the two country’s own governments, marked by a peremptory U.S. attitude toward Britain and English offense at being treated cavalierly. And in the midst of it all are Foster, the inept boob trying to make a difference but without the clout or the spine to do so, and Toby, a doofus who’s ambitious in more ways than one. It will certainly mean more to British audiences than American ones (it’s based on a BBC teleseries, and various characters—Tucker most notably—are heightened versions of real people from the Blair era, while the Yank characters are a more generic bunch), and the end of the Bush administration makes its swings at U.S. arrogance much less corrosively topical.
On the technical side, the picture apes the hectic style of ersatz documentaries, with Jaimie Cairney’s HD cinematography mostly opting for a jittery handheld look and the frenzied editing (by Billy Sneddon and Ant Boys, whoever he or they might be) keeping things moving, pausing only for some of Hollander’s befuddled shtick (which, admittedly, he does very well).
“In the Loop” is a bit out of it now; it would have been far more to the point a year or more ago. But waspish political satire is rare enough today that even a middling specimen is welcome.