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In The Loop

Peter Capaldi and James Gandolfini in In the Loop

Bumbling & Bungling Toward War

When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell gave his now-infamous address to the United Nations General Assembly on February 6, 2003, arguing in favor of a military invasion of Iraq, he had at his disposal not only the cooked, barely vetted, and sharply angled intelligence provided by CIA director George Tenet. He also relied on an intelligence white paper supplied by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that analyzed Iraq’s biological warfare capabilities. (Powell paused in his presentation to say it was “particularly fine.”)

Within a couple of weeks of Powell’s address, the British report was discredited in both this country and the United Kingdom as the product of plagiarisms from an article published by an Iraqi-born California graduate student, drawing largely from documents he got from another Shia exile from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a man with contacts at the US State Department.

It’s hard to believe that even a master of satire like novelist Evelyn Waugh could imagine such a deliciously incompetent and elegant circularity of events. Of course, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop didn’t benefit from the mordant creative vision of a Waugh as he and four co-writers put together the script for their movie, which deals with a fictionalized and telescoped version of the period leading up to the start of the Iraq war. Iraq is never mentioned but there’s never any doubt about the target of this film’s savage humor.

Iannucci and his collaborators may lack Waugh’s refined mordancy but their movie takes off from a bit that’s reminiscent of one of his narrative ploys. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a boob of a junior minister in Her Majesty’s Government, answers an unexpected question from a BBC interviewer about rumors of American preparation for a Mideast war by stammering that “war is unforeseeable.” This gaff of clumsy ambiguity brings down on his addled pate the wrath of Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the prime minister’s scabrously vitriolic communications director. (“In the words of the late, great Nat fucking King Cole, unforeseeable is what you are!”)

Since the Brits are trying to dodge speculation about their intentions, the spin-challenged Simon’s inartful evasiveness is decidedly counterproductive. Nonetheless, he is sent to Washington to reconnoiter the political landscape. Toby (Chris Addison), his new, young, and diffidently unreliable political advisor, comes along, beds down for a night with an aide to an anti-American diplomat (Anna Chlumsky, who made kissy face with McCaulay Culkin in My Girl when she was 10), and manages to inadvertently alert most of official Washington to the existence of a supposedly secret war-planning committee headed by an acerbically superior hawk (David Rasche) who seems modeled after the rigidly reactionary Bush administration diplomat John Bolton. Meanwhile, for reasons I never got, and which may not have been given, Tucker shows up to tangle with a dovish American general (James Gandolfini) who is his match in baroquely nasty insults.

The immediate antecedent for In the Loop is Iannucci’s limited BCC TV comedy series The Thick of It, but its roots stretch back to the earlier BBC series Yes Minister, and even further to the famous British sketch review Beyond the Fringe. In the Loop has a sketch comedy tone and feels like several TV episodes stitched together. Now and then it sounds improvisatory, and reportedly Iannucci encouraged the actors to occasionally ad lib. This probably contributed to the gradually increasing hit-or-miss character of the proceedings. The movie is a combination of incisive waggishness and slapdash busyness. At first, it moves along with a bracing if mildly disorienting high velocity, but toward the end, the filmmakers’ inventiveness flags and the movie seems just to tail off.

I’m inclined to be forgiving about its lapses; decent political satire on film is so rare that some tolerance in return seems appropriate. In the Loop’s democratically cynical embrace of all its characters is somehow a little comforting. It’s a mad marathon of political backstabbing and buckpassing.

One of the problems satirists have had to confront is the competition reality sometimes poses. Just the other day, Colin Powell blew into town with an equally inspiring crew of motivational speakers for a one-day event. (Admission was only $5 a head.) Powell’s topic was leadership. See what I mean?

Watch the trailer for In The Loop

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