Thursday, August 6, 2009

In The Loop: Great Political Satire, Lousy Title

If there were a movie store somewhere where I could go order a custom movie, filled with all the humor, insight, cleverness, biting political satire and wit that I'd ever want to see from a film, then the new British comedy, In The Loop - loosely about the British and American political culture that led to the Iraq invasion - would be that movie.

It's hard to imagine a cultural product that has been more spot on in satirizing the Bush/Blair culture of the early decade that led to the stove piping of made-up intelligence justifying the march to war. Though the movie never once mentions the words Iraq, Bush, or Blair - and introduces characters who in the first thirty minutes could really be any politicians in any modern times - you soon get enough background to surmise the real targets of this laugh-a-minute lampoon.

John Stewart would be hard-pressed to come up with a five minute routine this good, but director Amando Iannuci and writers Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell (behind some popular British TV comedies) have an intimate knowledge of their subject and the political animal rarely scene on screen, and they keep the keen entertainment going for a solid hour and a half. Someone on that team must have spent time as either a Washington intern or British communications officer, as the characterizations are just filled with such subtle insight it's hard to imagine any writer coming up with these characters out of whole cloth.

The movie opens with British political communications chief Malcum Tucker chewing out the somewhat inept minor cabinet official Simon Foster for inadvertently suggesting on a radio programme about some interior health blah blah that the eventuality of war in the Middle East was "unforeseeable." The inscrutable "unforeseeable" comment naturally opens a whole can of worms for Simon (as well as Malcum), as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clarke comes to London, seeking support for her political machinations against the power-hungry Linton Barwick (a Donald Rumsfeld stand-in) and his secret war planning committee (which goes by the intentionally boring name of the "Future Planning Committee").

The ensuing shenanigans ensnare a riotous assemblage of political consultants, planning secretaries, diplomats, army generals, assistants, and seventeen-year-old cabinet appointees on both sides of the pond. The sacred cows that get skewered are too numerous to name, but do include Oxford-educated Debussy-listening diplomats, U.N. protocols, Rumsfeldian declarations about altering the text of meeting transcriptions to make them, as John Stewart would say, "truthier," office politics between twenty-somethings and fifty-somethings -- and probably the most humorous bit of the film, in which the army general and the secretary of state plan out the number of troops needed for war on a three-year-old's speak-and-spell adding machine (the bit is pure genius).

There are also some truly inspired running gags that are done with just the right level of subtlety: "communications" officers who can do nothing but cuss; seventeen-year-old planning secretaries who get chewed out for ordering "I Heart Huckabees" for viewing by the troops. A rickety garden wall that's a bit like Checkov's loaded gun, just waiting to go off at a critical moment in the plot.

There's much much more: the movie is just chock-a-block with gags and two viewings minimum I think is necessary to catch them all. But don't worry: even getting half the humor of this film would be tens times more than any movie I've seen in the last decade. Yes, this is not just the best movie of the summer - it's the best in years. It's not a perfect movie by any means: though the script is witty, it does have a bit of a TV feel: more craft could have gone into the locations and cinematography, we get a bit lost navigating the various scenes around the U.N., and Gandolfini is mis-cast as the General. And that title does nothing to sell the film. But if there's been anything of late with the insight and wit to cheer me out of the Bush years, this movie is it.

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