The International Writers Magazine: Film Review
In The Loop
Directed by: Armando Ianucci
Starring: Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Peter Capaldi, Chris Addison, Gina Mckee
‘You sure you're working as hard as I am, 'cause I'm sweating spinal fluid here!’ Malcolm Tucker
Every now and again you get an extremely underrated film that comes knocking unexpectedly upon your evening and find it to be one of the most original and enjoyable of the year so far. In The Loop happens to be one of these films. The film documents a few weeks in the lives of the people behind the scenes in the British and American governments as they attempt to sway the result of a UN vote to go to war in the middle-east. But it concentrates on a very specific part of these two governments, and it isn’t the supposedly glamorous and exciting lives of the higher-ups and their lives of luxury, but the men and women in the trenches, doing painfully difficult work under the enormous pressures of balancing media appearance with policy and action. One tiny misstep in the wrong direction and the consequences could literally affect the world.
If you’ve seen The Thick of It, you’ll know the basic style of In The Loop. It’s pretty much just a feature length version of the fantastic TV show with an American plotline thrown in. The two also share a couple of the same characters, and many of the same actors playing different characters, except their film characters are pretty much the same but with different names. Basically you have to look at it as a separate entity from the TV show or things get too confusing. The very nature of the film itself is a hundred percent satirical, and proceeds to undermine every aspect of the government with masterful strokes of comedy. From the simple misspoken word of a politician to the deceit of ordinary workers trying to get ahead, nothing about the governmental process is spared of close examination and a brutal ripping apart by the power of comedy. Admittedly it is very difficult to keep up with all the acronyms and various facets of government legislation, but it’s less about the nitty gritty specifics of what they are talking about and more about the way in which they go about it, and you only need a basic understanding of the political landscape to truly appreciate the message In The Loop attempts to get across.
Viewers of the TV series The Thick of It will immediately recognise the character Malcolm Tucker and the whirlwind of constant fury that comes pouring out of his mouth at every opportunity. It’s difficult to imagine how a man can be this angry all the time without having some kind of stroke, but makes for some of the most hilarious moments in the entirety of the film. Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, is basically the press relations manager for the Prime Minister, and his job is to manipulate the press not only to make his party along with it’s individual members come across well, but more importantly to plug any leaks and put a stop to any stories that make them look bad or hinder political process. In the modern political climate, where image is everything, it’s one of the most important jobs, and the most stressful. At times Malcolm Tucker’s constant tirade of insults and shouting goes over the thin line of scary and intimidating to just a bit silly. You start to think to yourself, who is he being angry for and how is it helping get anything done? I just starts to feel a bit redundant at some points in the film. But then you’re reminded, this is just how some people deal with extreme pressure, and In The Loop probably depicts one of the most stressful environments known to man.
A big part of what In The Loop is about is the immense pressure under which the lower down members of the government are placed, and how this can affect judgement, performance, and in the long run, the general effectiveness of the government. This also seems to be the stem of some of the milder forms of political corruption. Not the kind where gangsters give you money to get them out of jail, but the kind that is the only option left to save the career of the person committing it. It falls more under the umbrella of dirty politics than full-scale corruption that comes complete with a shifty manner and a talent for deceit. A UN decision to start a war is something that will affect millions of people’s lives and cause unimaginable chaos and destruction, but in a government setting it is reduced to a file of papers that through manipulation amount to nothing more than rhetoric. In a way it is quite a disturbing portrayal of how pressure can lead people to forget the common good.
In The Loop is without a doubt natural and realistic, partly because some of the script is improvised by the cast. You can spot the hesitation, awkwardness and even genuine surprise by the characters at some things that are said. This is not a world where everyone has a snappy comeback for every insult or an immediate response to a disaster, but a world of panic, stress and off the cuff remarks where you can actually see the thought processes of the characters in action. It makes a huge change from carefully crafted and streamlined shows like The Wire to see what on the surface looks like a complete manic mess, but underneath is just as intelligent and thought provoking, raising some very interesting points in the way both the UK and US governments are run.
The documentary feel of the film, coupled with a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, serves to give the film just that little bit more authenticity it needs to break the barriers of the fictional and stray into a whole new and interesting area that blurs the boundaries of reality. The fast paced camerawork masks what is the inevitably dull world of politics with the illusion of constant action and decisiveness. What is so brilliant is that you really do get a sense of the monotonous and the boredom of the characters in some scenes that helps to frame the rest of the events in the right context. It reminds us of the setting from which this kind of politics arises, free from spin and manipulation. All of these together tie up into a nice package of what could be as close to truth as we’ll ever get from behind the scenes of government.
We are all familiar with stories in newspapers about various political scandals, but In The Loop introduces you to other side of the curtain. The time before a story is written and how it came into existence and this film makes you come to realise that it is never as simple as the print on a page makes it out to be. Often there are blatant exaggerations, quotes taken out of context, speculation, guesswork, and even the occasional plain and simple lie, presented as truth in the media. And the real problem is this isn’t really any one persons fault, it’s just the way it works. Newspapers need exciting and dramatic stories to attract readers and the world of politics is the exact opposite of thrilling, so they have to work with what they’ve got. Of course this can cause untold problems for the people making the policies. The media is the main source of pressure for the characters and forces them to make rash and untimely decisions before the media can tear their image apart. Not the best way to get things done, but there’s no way around it, and the film knows that and does a fantastic job of showing to us the kind of damage this system can cause.
But alongside all of this social commentary and criticism, let’s not forget that In The Loop is a comedy, and the hilarity of almost everything that happens is mainly what undermines it. Its how a film about something so boring becomes so incredibly un-boring. There is no shortage of wise-cracks, but they don’t feel like the kind that require careful crafting and hours of writing, but instead feel natural and the kind of thing anyone might say in conversation with their colleagues, albeit with a little more swearing. Most of the comedy comes from the general banter of the characters and the lengths they have to go to just to get a simple task done. It pokes a lot of fun at the staggering scale of bureaucracy and red tape found in these environments, and points out the inadequacies that people have to put up with. Just the act of making fun of something so serious and important in itself adds to the comedy. How can the people in charge of our country be so light hearted and flippant? Because at the end of the day to them it’s a job like any other, not some crusade to save the world or change the country, but just a day at the office. All sense of passion in politics has been reduced to instruments of the spin doctors and PR guru’s, and In The Loop is the first step in a long haul towards getting people to realise this, and hopefully, eventually, to do something about it.
© Dan Crossen March 2010