What ever happened to the English public schoolboys rescued at the end of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? It’s not hard to imagine that they became nerve-wracked government figures, fluent in false bonhomie but ready to take each other down at the slightest prompting. As practitioners of Darwinist realpolitik, they’d have laid the blueprint for the inept Blair-era Minister of Social Affairs and his aides in Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, a satirical 2005 BBC series that took the vérité-style com-doc formula of The Office and laced it with vitriol.
There’s a Lord of the Flies element to In the Loop, Iannucci’s feature-length expansion of the series, which aired as seven half-hour parts and two hour-long specials (with new installments on the way; a proposed U.S. TV remake went no further than a pilot directed by Christopher Guest in 2007). Like Golding’s novel and Peter Brook’s 1963 film adaptation, In the Loop brutally sends a lamb to the slaughter under extreme circumstances in a hermetic world—not that the ostensible protagonist, low-level British Government minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), has the brains or guts of Golding’s Piggy. And if Iannucci and his team of writers don’t aspire to making a lofty allegory, as did Golding, about the fruitlessness of civilization-building, they do supply us with a wolfish Machiavellian demiurge with a relishable line in Brimstone wit who’s analogous to a troubling figure in recent British politics.
Simon’s weakness—apart from his weakness—is his habit of speaking out of turn, like a child. As the U.S. president and the British prime minister, both unseen, collude on Anglo-U.S. intervention in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, Simon drops a PR bombshell by telling an interviewer that war is “unforeseeable.” This faux pas unleashes Scottish pitbull Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the PM’s fixer, whose foul-mouthed invective, sardonic pop-culture allusions, and high-octane spin-doctoring in The Thick of It made him a TV icon—the character clearly inspired by Alastair Campbell, Blair’s aggressive, Scottish-born director of communications.
Malcolm’s solution is to send Simon to D.C. on a fact-finding mission with his equally boyish aide Toby (Chris Addison). Simon is co-opted by Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), the antiwar U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, to “internationalize the dissent.” Karen may be afflicted with hemorrhaging gums, but she has a sizeable secret weapon in the form of Pentagon’s General Miller (James Gandolfini), who opposes the war, and an aide, Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), who’s written a potentially incendiary report on post-war planning.
Iannucci can pile on the incongruities too thickly: the scene in which Clark and Miller work out likely troop deployment figures on a toy calculator in a little girl’s empty bedroom during a house party is glaringly contrived. Toby, meanwhile, opts for another bedroom: having leaked to CNN the existence of a secret war committee—headed by the Rumsfeldian Linton Barwick (David Rasche)—he sleeps with Liza (later justifying this slip to his irate girlfriend as an attempt to avert “this awful, awful war”). Echoing Ollie, the character Addison played in The Thick of It, Toby is an attractive, laid-back urchin: ridiculed as Ron Weasley by Malcolm and as Frodo by Miller, he’s as much a movie construct as a man.
The ensuing comic convolutions and the airlessness of the film’s universe (apart from Steve Coogan as an unstable local protesting about a collapsing wall in Simon’s home constituency, there’s not a “civilian” to be seen) augment the self-conscious, hyper-mockumentary style achieved through shaky handheld camerawork, two-camera coverage, fast zooms, half-zooms, indistinct sound, and so on. In this respect the film’s aesthetic lineage extends from Michael Ritchie’s 1972 The Candidate and Altman’s Tanner ’88, through to Nineties films like Bob Roberts and Wag the Dog. In direct contrast to the sober realism of Ken Loach’s political films, say, it’s a bluntly confrontational approach, but it does have the desired effect of exposing the ugly truths lurking behind the satire.
In the Loop is especially trenchant in this respect. When Toby leaks Liza’s report to the BBC and Malcolm threatens to “hound” Simon “to an assisted suicide,” the film is clearly invoking the David Kelly affair. Kelly was a British U.N. weapons inspector who killed himself in 2003 after being questioned by two government committees. The dead scientist had earlier been outed as the source of a BBC report about the “sexing up” of the government’s “September dossier” about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. If Campbell’s much-discussed role in the distortion of the dossier remains unclear, Malcolm and his henchman Jamie (Paul Higgins), who ferociously echoes him, are indisputably the facilitators of the dossier that clinches the case for going to war in the movie. The effect is more chilling than any straight drama could hope to be.