If I Don't Know the Answer, I'll Just Respond, Cleverly
2009 // UK // Armando Iannucci // August 18, 2009 // Theatrical Print
A- - The Hurt Locker seems to be getting some significant accolades as the first truly commendable film about the Iraq War, but as my review from earlier this week contends, this misstates the film's strengths. Kathryn Bigelow's film uses its setting to cannily, viscerally evoke its plainly stated themes. The Hurt Locker is interested in war as an irresistible personal force; the Iraq War itself is a merely a convenient vessel for that exploration. Like Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, The Hurt Locker is as much "about" its milieu as The Iliad is "about" the Trojan War.
It is Armando Iannucci's bracing, sublimely profane farce In the Loop that strikes me as the best film to date to wrestle with the Iraq War as a phenomenon of a specific time and place. Granted, the film's "action" takes place in the corridors of British and American power, rather than on the battlefield. In the Loop operates foremost as a deliriously hideous farce in the squirming comedic form of The Office. (The film, incidentally, is a spin-off of Iannucci's British television series, The Thick of It, which is shot in a vérité style that has become a hallmark of such humor.) However, as magnificent as In the Loop is as a story about horrible people doing horrible things, it is also a devastating snapshot of the utterly dispiriting nature of politics in the twenty-first century. Not to put too fine a point on it, Iannucci has given us a treatise on bullshit, as philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt has succinctly characterized the defining feature of modern society. And what is the Iraq War--never actually name-checked in Iannucci's film--but the blood-soaked progeny of a truly epic accretion of bullshit?
The film's cast of characters is vast and filled to bursting with clowns of every stripe. On the Old World side of the pond, we are introduced to Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a twerp of a minister with his foot perpetually in his mouth. Terrorizing Simon is Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a ruthless monster who is Number 10 Downings eyes and ears in the ministry. Rounding things out is Toby (Chris Addison), Simon's new assistant, who is even more gutless than his boss. The setting is deliberately ambiguous, but it becomes clear that the film takes place in a fictional corollary of 2003, as the drumbeat for war with an unnamed Mideast nation reaches deafening levels. Simon has made the apparently grievous mistake of saying on a radio program that war is "unforeseeable," a gaffe that sends Malcolm into apoplectic rage. Then again, apoplectic rage seems to be Malcolm's resting state. Simon's misstep unfortunately intersects with the visit of an American delegation, which includes State Department dove Karen Clarke and her hapless assistant, Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky). Clarke and her Pentagon ally, Lieutenant General George Milller (James Gandolfini) suspect that State hawk Linton Barwick (David Rasche) is convening a secret "war committee," suggesting that negotiation with the Mideast nation is question is a sham.
There are, of course, many, many more characters, and the relationships between them all are politically and emotionally convoluted in a manner befitting any farce of more than passing quality. Suffice to say that the doves' sanctimonious tenacity, the hawks' diabolical maneuvers, and Simon's endless succession of blunders collide in a kind of slow-motion geopolitical clusterfuck. The film builds towards a crucial United Nations vote, with Iannucci and his writers loosely cribbing from the events of February 2003 in particular, when Colin Powell gave his notorious speech before the world body.
While In the Loop is sprinkled with on-the-nose criticism of British and American political realities of the era--one British character, referring to the fresh-faced, no-nothing ideologues that have taken over Washington D.C., notes that "it's like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns"--these are actually less cutting than the film's overall tone of stunned, lightly chuckling despair. Iannucci has crafted a porthole through which the audience may view an environment governed entirely by bullshit. While the motivations that drive the individual players in this tragedy are multitude--vanity, territoriality, sadism, lust, laziness, fear--the currency is pure bullshit, and there's a kind of awful majesty to it. Burn After Reading ventured into similar coal-black territory last year, but the crudity of its message and the slightness of its story lent it a thematic flimsiness. In the Loop is more successful because it ties its central observations about the preeminence of bullshit to a specific, demonstrably horrible real-world outcome.
It's enough to make you weep in anguish, were it not so funny. Not the knee-slapping, belly-laughing kind of funny, really, but the sort that leaves you sitting with your mouth open, barely able to keep up with what you're hearing. Iannucci and his cabal of writers--Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, and Ian Martin--ensure that every character is thoroughly crapped upon and revealed for the craven twits they truly are. The script is breathless, whirring along on a current of acid observations, discomfiting tension, and breathtaking insults. Irannucci's direction is crisp, dexterous, and deferential to his characters. Far from serving as a stylistic distraction, his handheld, pseudo-documentary method provides an unobtrusive framework that permits the focus to rest on the physicality of his actors, especially their faces.
The performances are all memorable, from Hollander's clueless flailing to Chlumsky's exasperated anxiousness to Rasche's squinting, affable malevolence. Zach Woods is absolutely repugnant (in the best possible way) as a disarmingly creepy State Department dork who takes delight in others' misery. The hands-down show-stealer, however, is Capaldi, whose positively satanic Malcolm Tucker is one of the few characters to migrate directly from The Thick of It. Seemingly perpetually on the verge on an aneurysm, Tucker devours everyone he encounters--allies, subordinates, rivals, passing strangers--with epic torrents of profanity, to rival even high-water marks such as The Big Lebowski and In Bruges. With a Scottish brogue that seems made for vulgarity, Capaldi tears a fearsome path through his every scene, leaving the other characters (and the actors, I suspect) blinking in stunned silence. It's like watching the Tiger Woods of hate. Within a story that brims with so much spin and truthiness, there's something pure about Malcolm's absolute misanthropy. Here at last, he seems to suggest, is something we can count on: the reliability of a colossal asshole.