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In the Loop (2009)

WARNING: EASY-PEASY-LEMON-SQUEEZY SPOILERS

I think war is unforeseeable.

That’s the big joke in “In the Loop,” a British comedy about the insane and petty circumlocutions and politicking in a ramp-up to a U.S.-led war in the Middle East that will otherwise go unnamed. All jokes in the film stem from this one.

Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the minister for international development, is on a bland British radio show, dealing with the bland issues in his field; then he’s asked about the impending war, says the above line, and all hell breaks loose.

“He did not say ‘unforeseeable,’” says Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the hilariously profane Scottish director of communications at Number 10 Downing Street. “You may have heard him say that but he did not say that.” And there’s our modern political world in a nutshell. You didn’t hear what you heard. You didn’t see what you saw. Or turn it on its head: You know what you don’t know. (See: existence of WMDs.) Politicians can probably be divided into these two camps. People can probably be divided into those two camps. Those who know what they don’t know, like Tucker, and those who don’t know what they know, like Foster. The former are full of passionate intensity while the latter lack all conviction.

Foster, lacking all conviction, backtracks while talking to Tucker:

Foster: I don’t think war is unforeseeable.
Tucker: What is it then?
Foster: I don’t know. Foreseeable?
Tucker: No. No!

The beauty is that Foster is right on both counts. In general, war is unforeseeable, since so many factors going into its creation. On the other hand, this war is foreseeable, since the big dog, an unnamed U.S. administration, is hell-bent on having it.

Which leaves Foster nowhere to go. He’s stuck on the tiny island of his statement and winds up spouting gibberish to reporters the next day:

Look. To the plane, in the fog, the mountain is...is unforeseeable, but then it is suddenly very real and...foreseeable.

Because his original line is perceived as anti-war, he attempts, in this follow-up, to sound more martial:

To walk the road of peace sometimes we have to be ready to climb...the mountain...of conflict.

Disaster. But within the U.S. administration, he’s suddenly seen as both anti-war (the original statement) and pro-war (the follow-up), and both sides try to use him for their purposes. An anti-war general, Miller (James Gandolfini), talking with an anti-war assistant secretary of state, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), predicts, “You’re going to use him like a little meat puppet.” Meanwhile, Linton Barwick (David Rasche, doing a pitch-perfect Donald Rumsfeld), tapes the “mountain of conflict” line onto computers all over his department.

U.S. officials request Foster’s presence in D.C. for planning sessions, but even as he arrives with a go-getting assistant, Toby Wright (Chris Addison), he’s kept out of the loop. Most of the activity within the film, from Foster and almost every one, is to try to get in the loop—but only for the sake of being in the loop. So that one appears powerful. So that one appears to matter. Once there, and once called upon while there: disaster. No one, in the end, can use Foster because all of his energy is spent trying get to a place of consequence in order to act inconsequential.

“In the Loop” is good satire, necessary satire, but parts of it feel like weak tea. I went in with the highest of expectations (critics were comparing it to “Dr. Strangelove”), and they weren’t met. In other sharp, political satires (“Strangelove,” “Wag the Dog”), the characters (“Buck” Turgidson, Pres. Merkin Muffley, Stanley Motts) felt vivid in a way that these don’t, and it was a kind of “Ah ha!” moment when I discovered that the film was a spin-off of a British TV series, “The Thick of It,” about the inner workings of the British government. The film made me want to watch the series but the fact of the series made me realize why the film seems somewhat small.

I still admire it. I still recommend it. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s right. One of my favorite moments comes late in the film, when the pious Linton Barwick bumps heads with the profane Malcolm Tucker, in, all of places, the U.N. Meditation Room. Barwick, unable to swear, calls Tucker “a useless piece of s * * t,” pronouncing the last word, “ess-star-star-tee.” Tucker, unable to not swear, counters to Barwick, “You are a boring old eff-star-star-CUNT.”

I roared. Brilliant.

—August 21, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard