Winston Churchill coined the term “special relationship” for the alliance between the United States and the British Commonwealth. The English comedy In the Loop reveals the relationship to be an entirely codependent, dysfunctional pairing, with England serving as the passive-aggressive enabler of America’s bellicose behavior on the world stage.
In the Loop clearly draws inspiration from the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and the Coalition of the Willing. Where most recent foreign policy parodies indulge in heavy-handed Bush bashing, In the Loop’s wicked satire takes a sneaky, indirect path, and proves the better for it. The film doesn’t mention Iraq directly — it only alludes to impending military action in the Middle East. The movie reserves its big comedic guns for the favor-currying, ass-covering bureaucrats on either side of the Atlantic.
In two incidents, minor government functionaries commit the sin of expressing personal opinions — or at least seeming to, which is just as bad. In London, Minister for Foreign Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) tells a radio interviewer he finds the possibility of war “unforeseeable.” Even such a wishy-washy phrase sounds too forceful, so Simon's chewed out by Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the prime minister’s communications chief. Here, “communications” must mean murderous, volcanically profane threats.
On the American side, young aide Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) writes a briefing paper that presents more arguments against the war than supporting it — a potentially poisonous document in Washington’s pro-war climate. Everyone reads the paper, and a rival gloats “It’s like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter made people really, really angry.” Meanwhile, Liza’s upstanding boss, Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (the splendid Mimi Kennedy), gets wind of a secret war committee. She tries to flush it out by finding the group with the most boring and innocuous name imaginable.
In the Loop juggles many additional roles, including Simon’s moony new assistant (Chris Addison), who accidentally creates an international incident. James Gandolfini plays a pacifist U.S. general in a clever contrast to clichéd warmongers like Dr. Strangelove, even though he emerges as a declawed lion. First-time director Armando Iannucci manages traffic control like Robert Altman in his heyday. Iannucci keeps the characterizations so clear and the one-liners so barbed that the power dynamics stay coherent. Iannucci’s name may be unknown to American audiences, but he’s a driving force in British TV comedy. He influenced the cringe-humor of “The Office’s” Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan (who plays a small role as one of Simon's curmudgeonly constituents).
You may remember Hollander as corporate bad guy Cutler Beckett from the two most recent Pirates of the Caribbean films. Here, he plays a classic, well-intentioned bumbler whose shortness signals that he’s in over his head. A sympathetic magnet for controversy, Simon gets dragooned in to increasingly prominent meetings. Hollander amusingly plays Simon’s star-struck visits to the U.S. Capitol and the United Nations like a minor leaguer briefly traded to the majors. Meanwhile, Capaldi’s caustic performance casts Malcolm as the Lucifer in Iannucci’s not-so-divine comedy. The lanky Scottish character actor is having a great summer: Last month, he shone as a conscientious civil servant on “Torchwood: Children of Earth,” a role that was like Malcolm’s “good” twin.
In the Loop’s brilliant spoof of bureaucratic jargon and doublespeak gives it such hilarious dialogue, the film deserves a second viewing to appreciate it all. As it progresses, though, you notice how many characters use movie titles as put-downs, such as “What’s Cocoon doing here?” or “Shut it, Love Actually!” You sort of wonder, of the four screenwriters, who was the movie title guy?
The film also relies on the audience to pay attention to what isn't shown as much as what is. The diplomats and drones almost never discuss the lives of soldiers and civilians, valuing their careers over the real costs of war. In the Loop has no heroes, not even tragic ones. The very absence of heroes gives it a tragic dimension. The characters can’t shape events, and even their modest acts of opposition can be snatched away. In the Loop could take its epitaph from the tagline of Kevin Smith’s Clerks: “With no power comes no responsibility.”