In the Loop (Review)

Making light of the Iraq War fiasco

Mix The West Wing’s knowingness of policy wonks with The Office’s deadpan, mockumentary-style humor, and then throw in Wag the Dog’s scabrous, pessimistic take on the political motives for going to war, and you have In the Loop.

Of course, you also have the ingredients for a cynical, deceptive campaign to launch an unnecessary and disastrous American war — in Iraq, to our nation’s everlasting regret. The satiric In the Loop is inspired by that war, but it is a British movie rather than American. We forget that Prime Minister Tony Blair got conned by our W. — or did some conning himself — to support that war. There’s plenty of disgust across the Atlantic for that.

As a British movie, In the Loop is qualified to open Cincinnati World Cinema’s fall Global Cinema Series, which will bring 10 international features to the Carnegie Arts Center in Covington. It screens at 6:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Also on Sunday, a Kazakhstan film, Song From the Southern Sea, shows at 4 p.m. (and then repeats at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 7).

In the Loop presumes that the British government is strong enough, and malevolent enough, to want to push an ill-planned war on its public and the world, from the beginning. This acerbic film, with its awesome parade of sometimes venal, sometimes repressed characters, features pitch-perfect acting by a lot of television veterans, most not familiar to American moviegoers. It also has witheringly fast-paced, obscenity-spewing dialogue (think Withnail & I) that is delivered rat-a-tat style. A team of five British-television comedy writers developed it, and one of them, Armando Iannucci, also directed.

In the Loop imagines the foreign-policy establishment as one big, incestuous, spin-polluting, backstabbing, Atlantic-hopping club. They attend the same meetings, spread the same gossip and — when necessary — sleep with each other. Following the style of The Office (which was originally a British TV series), In the Loop jumps among them all, through ever-changing scenarios, with a dispassionate eye. Everyone is free to expose and humiliate his or her self however they see fit. And do they ever!

If there is a central figure here, it is the well meaning but stumblebum Simon Foster (Tom Hollander, who slightly reminds one of both Blair and Dudley Moore), Britain’s secretary of state for international development. A disastrous public speaker, he sets off a firestorm by stating that war is “unforeseeable,” which doesn’t sit well with his higherups. But he can’t extricate himself from the statement without making further comments that are enigmatic, idiotic or both.

This concerns the Americans, where a vicious — and viciously personal — policy debate is underway about the desirability of going to war. Against war is U.S. Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and some younger associates in her entourage. She is by turns pathetic and courageous. Pro-war is another assistant secretary of state (and her bitter rival) Linton Barwick, a mean-spirited and intimidating Rumsfield-like character who keeps a live grenade on his desk and is played to perfection by David Rasche.

Also on hand is a volatile military general who has no use for war-loving politicians and is physically and verbally capable of making his beliefs known to all. He is played by The Sopranos’ great James Gandolfini, who carries his weight around with such sauntering, high-spirited jauntiness you easily forget just how imposing an actor he can be.

In the Loop’s drawback is that its British politics are not easily discernable to outsiders from what happens on screen. This is different from a drama like BBC’s State of Play, which carefully delineated the line of authority among its politicians. Simon answers to a wildly unhinged higher-up, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, who plays him like Mad Men’s Roger Sterling completely unrestrained). He is a riveting character, but it’s hard to figure out where his power comes from and just how much of it he has.

Still, this is a worthy and funny launch for Cincinnati World Cinema’s Global Cinema. Grade: B

CINCINNATI WORLD CINEMA presents In the Loop Oct. 4 and 6 at the Carnegie Arts Center in Covington. See the film's summary and photos here, and get CWC "Global Cinema Series" details here.