In the Loop (2009)
A lot of movies over the past decade or so have portrayed the run up to the Iraq War as a deadly serious cloak and dagger affair, pregnant with low talking and serious looks exchanged between serious people who thought seriously about serious matters. But what if it were more like high school? Petty, childish, backbiting, and soaked in the politics of who will or will not be prom queen; a life and death decision reduced to a dick measuring contest in a locker room (which I am told absolutely does happen), or a burn book, or any other metaphor (I don’t know, I was actually sort of popular in high school).
In many ways, it’s a more terrifying thought than the idea that the war was inevitable, carefully planned, and a just endeavor. The idea that perhaps no one took the invasion of a whole country, along with the deaths or maimings of tens of thousands of allied troops and more than a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, very seriously at all is explored in Armando Iannucci’s hysterical and brilliant little chamber piece, In the Loop. What’s most upsetting, what will make you laugh until you cry, is that such a scenario is not that hard to imagine given the shear number of man-children who have made money writing books in the wake of George W. Bush’s presidency, all insisting. “That is not it at all, That is not what I meant at all.”
J. Alfred Prufrock ref. Yeah, Biatch.
We live in trying times. Our politicians act like children. Actors are now allowed to say the word “cock” on basic cable after ten. People continue to watch a “reality“ show about blonde girls seeking emotionally abusive relationships (The Bachelorette, if you were wondering). What the Hell happened to the world? In the Loop asks this question and then realizes about midway through that the answer just isn’t there. We are a mystery unto ourselves. All the people who were supposed to act responsibly during the aughts either fled or self-immolated. If there is such a thing as the fog of war, then this is about as accurate a portrayal as one could hope for.
There is a lot to love about this movie, but chief among its attributes is a gloriously profane performance by Peter Capaldi, playing a British functionary who turns phrases like “lubricated horse cock” into veritable opera. Capaldi makes his bureaucrat a bully, seeking the answers he wants to hear and getting them through the shear force of his braying Scottish will. He is among a number of villains in the cast, none of whom is ever challenged by a real hero, or even just a person willing to acknowledge the truth. For a while we think that perhaps the tongue-tied cabinet minister played by the impish Tom Hollander (the chubby commodore in some of those Pirates of the Caribbean movies) will at least try to throw up some roadblocks along the path to war, but he, like virtually everyone else, is simply blown away like so many confused cows in the tornado that is Capaldi’s personality.
“Feck yer Maaaa! I’m gonna be voted ‘Most Likely to Feck the World’ in the yearbook!”
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) shows up occasionally, playing a war-weary American general who is doing his absolute level best to make sure cooler heads prevail while not committing outright treason. It’s a testament to Gandolfini’s presence that he can play every role using the same voice and body language and still pull off something that seems like an individual mind in a unique situation. A man as portly as he is can’t exactly disappear into a role, but he does a nice job of underplaying in a film where everyone else is, by design, going as far over the top as possible.
“Why does no one ever talk about my groundbreaking work as a gay hit man in The Mexican?”
The script itself is a tiny masterpiece, letting its characters talk a mile a minute while dropping pop culture references that for whatever reason are rich enough to not feel dated. You could watch these people talk past and curse at each other forever.
In would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this is a joke-a-minute comedy that finds laughs in both bleeding gums and the arcane language of government acronyms. As such, some of the material is bound to fall flat. Still, if the film is the Iraqi border, and the writing and acting are the missiles being thrown at that border, then let’s just say that there’s about an eighty percent hit rate.
There is also an utterly unnecessary subplot involving a crazy person played by Steve Coogan who is very concerned about a wall falling down. Coogan is always a welcome sight, but he belongs in a different script. The themes being dealt with here are simply too large to include his parochial mugging.
In the Loop is a caustic, pitch black comedy of the absurd that would be in the same league as This is Spinal Tap! and Waiting for Guffman were it not so trenchant, so current. You’ll laugh really hard, until you realize that what you’re laughing at isn’t that far from reality. It is against my nature to compare anything to M*A*S*H, but I have a sneaking feeling that this might do for Iraq what that Robert Altman/Ring Lardner Jr. genius bomb did for Korea. That is to say, we’ll be talking about it in 2020 despite how little attention it got upon its first release.
“Wow. I can’t believe you went there. I’m Robert Altman.”
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Capaldi says some variation of the F-word (just go ahead and pre-dial 911)
Take a Drink: when Gandolfini figures out troop levels using what appears to be a child’s Leap Frog gaming console
Take Several Drinks: after coming to the slow realization that this film might be entirely historically accurate… and then look on these works, ye Mighty, and despair…
“My middle name is Bysshe, Bitch.”