Peter Capaldi and James Gandolfini, in 'In the Loop'

Dir. Armando Iannucci
(2009, Not Rated, 106 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

In the Loop is peel-your-eyes-back entertainment, a blistering, pungent, savage political satire that suggests the result if Christopher Guest directed a screenplay by David Mamet. It takes place in contemporary England and the United States, though whether it concerns the near future or recent past isn’t precisely clear. The nations are on the verge of war with an unnamed country in the Middle East, though according to government spin-doctors, war is neither foreseeable nor unforeseeable.

At the start, an easily flustered British bureaucrat, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), makes a gaffe on a radio talk show, giving a decisive opinion when he should have given the non-committal company line. Damage control is undertaken by Malcolm Tucker, a pit-bull communications director played with such magnificent venom by Peter Capaldi that he makes Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds look like the Easter Bunny. This is a much different civil servant than he played in last summer’s sci-fi miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth, where he was a milquetoast middleman in a harrowing story arc; this time last year I didn’t know Capaldi at all, but with two roles the Scottish actor, an Academy Award-winner for the short film Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, has distinguished himself as a singular character actor.

This is how war is waged, opines the film, directed in a fly-on-the-wall documentary style by Armando Iannucci, based on his BBC series The Thick of It. As seen through the eyes of Foster’s marginally competent but wholly outmatched aide Toby (Chris Addison), the transatlantic political machine is a hopeless farce, full of petty backbiting and jockeying for position. Consider how David Rasche, as a US Assistant Secretary of State, explains that altering the minutes of a meeting can more accurately reflect their meaning. Or how an American intern’s memo becomes fodder for the anti-war and then, with some editorial massaging, pro-war movement. Or how James Gandolfini, as a general, explains that his principles won’t allow him to resign on principle.

Much effort is expended to get into a war-planning committee, but actually planning the war seems an afterthought. And when a decision is finally made, it feels like the arbitrary last maneuver in a game of international musical chairs. How sad, how bitterly funny, and how plausible.

The screenplay is credited to five writers (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, and director Iannucci, with additional dialogue by Ian Martin), who worked independently on their parts of the story until it was brought together by Iannucci with nigh miraculous cohesion. It contains superb dialogue passages that are studies in the artfulness of double-talk, manipulation, and intimidation. These men and women are cunning tacticians with petty, grade-school objectives; pity anyone who gets churned up by their machinations.

Perhaps that’s why Simon Foster keeps getting into trouble. He only knows how to talk out of one side of his mouth at a time.