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Not Bad for Government Work

Spoofing the run-up to war, In the Loop is political satire done right.

In the Loop doesn't necessarily mean you're in the know. In Armando Iannucci's movie, a satire of the run-up to war with a Middle Eastern country, it means that all the poor bastards are stuck in a loop, making the same bad decisions and tragic mistakes over and over again.

So deliriously foul-mouthed that it plays like one of those YouTube clips that has reduced Scarface or The Big Lebowski to the bare-bones fucks and cunts, In the Loop is set sometime between 2002 and the day after tomorrow; hard to say, given that the country with which U.S. and UK pols want to go to war is never specified save for its location in, you know, the Middle East. The prime minister and president, likewise, go unnamed. But several of the British wonks and wankers at the dark heart of this rambunctious catastrophuk first appeared in writer-director Iannucci's BBC series The Thick of It, which debuted in the thick of Tony Blair's reign as PM. So Iraq it is — satire from a safe distance.

Which doesn't diminish the impact or dull the point: Yesterday's tragic headlines become today's cynical mockumentary become tomorrow's talking points, and what elicits knowing giggles in the art house is taken seriously in the fluorescently lit corridors of power, where pinstriped schmucks forever roam under slightly different guises. Doc or mock, the response is the same: You are laughing at idiocy, whether it's coming from a peace-loving, warmongering general played by Colin Powell or James Gandolfini. All In the Loop is missing is a sieg-heiling Peter Sellers in a wheelchair and James Carville in the war room.

Asked a colleague halfway through a preview, "So, who's for and against the war again?" as if it mattered. In short, all of them. The poor bastards are so spun by the spin doctor — Peter Capaldi as rabid Brit press secretary Malcolm Tucker, who uses "fuck" the way everyone else uses a vowel — that they're light in the head, ready to commit to the cause and phony up intelligence and leak the fake docs because...because...well, fuck, because, that's all. None of these poor bastards are true believers in anything — except keeping their jobs and ascending the bureaucratic ladder.

The entire movie hinges on a single word: "unforeseeable." As in, "War is unforeseeable," which is uttered by lower-rung British minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) during a radio interview intended to be innocuous. One word leads to another, and suddenly, the accidental hawk says he's "ready to climb the mountain of conflict," thus rendering Simon "a Nazi Julie Andrews," in Malcolm's poetic parlance. One man's gaffe is another man's bumper sticker — that man being State Department chief Linton Barwick (David Rasche, Sledge Hammer himself), who keeps on his desk a live hand grenade that doubles as a paperweight. Barwick is also the keeper of the secret War Committee to which even the doves — especially diplomat Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), whose gums will occasionally bleed for no discernible reason — want an invite.

Add to this chaotic, combustible brew the striving younglings on both sides of the pond: Chris Addison as Simon's aide, Toby Wright — whose job consists of telling his boss to keep his mouth shut and that he's little more than "meat in the room" — and My Girl's Anna Chlumsky as Liza Weld, Karen Clarke's assistant and the State Department peon whose in-house report detailing the pros and cons of war is slowly but surely shorn of the cons till, at last, it morphs into the very document presented to the United Nations that makes the case for conflict. Toby and Liza, though, are cagey vets compared to the actual children running Washington: "It's like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns," says Gina McKee's Judy, whose job consists of telling Simon what a daft prick he has been. But even the so-called grown-ups are children playing dress-up — none more so than Gandolfini's "General Flintstone," who, in one extraordinary scene, tallies up the number of troops needed for war on a kiddie calculator.

The film can't sit still: It zooms back and forth between London and D.C. and, finally, New York City, where warmongers seal their sordid deals over a buffet spread and in the United Nations' "meditation room," as Simon gnaws on mints and wrestles with the conscience he doesn't really have. In the Loop hasn't any real plot — it plays like a rather brilliant Brit-com (The Office, say) stretched over 100 minutes, a collection of anecdotes and incidents. The final scene, played beneath the closing credits, suggests that what seems like a monumental, world-altering decision to most is merely tedious paper-pushing to these pricks. All done during the course of business hours.

 
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