Monday, August 3, 2009

In the Loop

By Elise Nakhnikian

I never could abide The West Wing, though it was impossible to avoid for a while. A lot of people embraced it as a kind of escapist fantasy during the Bush years, but its sanctimonious tone – all those photogenic, high-minded people striding down floodlit hallways and jabbering about Important Issues – just made me itch.

For me, In the Loop is a balm for that allergy. It’s not an either-or choice for everyone: I know some West Wing fans who loved In the Loop too. But the two couldn’t be much farther apart in their take on how the sausages are made in D.C. and other global power centers.

If West Wing indulges in the self-flattery of a waning empire clinging to its own myths, In the Loop, a mordantly funny British satire based on a BBC-TV series called The Thick of It, eyes politics from the perspective of a nation grown used to watching power plays from the sidelines. The joke’s on Britain in a running gag about “room meat” – aides and low-level bureaucrats invited to meetings as human props to acknowledge the importance of a occasion or signal the support of a regime. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the only British politician we see, is nothing but room meat to the Americans who invite him to join their war games. Worse yet, he’s too inept to know it at first.

Foster captures the world’s attention when he makes an impolitic statement in a radio interview, implying that the rumors of a coming war between the U.S. and some unnamed Middle Eastern country are true. Foster doesn’t actually know anything about it, but he can’t resist talking when reporters ask questions, jamming his foot a little further into his mouth every time he opens it.

Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), a savvy U.S. State Department official doing her best to avert the war, decides Foster will be a useful pawn in her game and invites him to D.C. Bumbling their way from the halls of Congress to the U.N., the minister and his newly minted aide, Toby (Chris Addison), another well-meaning incompetent playing way above his pay grade, are as starstruck as a couple of teens at a Miley Cyrus concert.

Meanwhile, Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a Donald Rumsfeld-style American hawk, coolly maneuvers his country into the war he’s decided it needs, swatting aside any facts that don’t support his case. “We have all the facts we need,” he announces. “In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is king.”

The deal-making takes place in resolutely plebeian settings, including a lot of public bathrooms and fluorescent-lit offices. At one point, Clark and a U.S. general (James Gandolfini) who shares her aversion for war are reduced to meeting in a child’s bedroom at a party, where they use a toy computer to bang out some numbers.

Clark is just one of several flawed but relatable characters – including Foster – who you can’t help but empathize with, even as they ruthlessly bully and manipulate each other. The most entertaining is ferret-faced Scottish spinmeister Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), whose tongue is even sharper than his nose. Tucker swears his way through the corridors of power with rare artistry and zeal.

It’s all very funny, and it feels alarmingly plausible – office politics with a capital P, exaggerated just a little for comic effect. This Washington, D.C. is a life-sized world full of life-like people. Most are motivated by self-interest, more interested in salvaging or furthering their careers than in winning the fight over going to war. Very young aides do nearly all the work, trading game-changing information behind the scenes. (“It’s like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns,” says one of the British spin doctors.) But in the end, Barwick’s ruthless manipulation of people and records wins the day.

The camerawork is as smart as the dialogue, capturing layers of simultaneous action in glass-walled offices or zooming in on telling expressions without drawing attention to itself. Director/co-writer Armando Iannucci, who was one of the writer/producers of The Thick of It, shot the movie as he did the TV show: “fast and free and slightly improvised … having two cameras on the go all the time," he says in an interview on the IFC website. He also likes to give his actors their lines only minutes before he starts filming, to keep them off-balance and ramp up the near-desperate intensity of the exchanges.

It’s deeply disturbing to think that this may be how such important decisions get made in our capitol, but the paradox of In the Loop is how much fun it is to watch all those Machiavellian machinations. It’s partly all the brilliant one-liners, of course. But there’s also something exhilarating about a portrayal of politicians in action that doesn’t lionize or demonize them but just seems to get them right.

“The disarming thing is when you talk to these people and realize they're just like you and me,” Iannucci told IFC. “They're all fallible, and, in fact, what drives their day are these petty little worries and stresses.”

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