I can’t really think of any way to approach In the Loop except by way of the obvious comparison, so here it is: it’s The Office meets Dr. Strangelove. This film, a political farce filled with smart performances and rich profanity in service of both hilarity and despair, borrows its fly-on-the-wall schtick from The Office (either version, take your pick), but elevates the phony vérité strategy by transposing the action from the television show’s cubicles of inconsequence to the very halls of power. Taking place among mostly unsung functionaries in the governments of Great Britain and the United States in the lead-up to the invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country, it never attempts to scale the boldly satirical heights of Dr. Strangelove, or to emulate that film’s depictions of megalomania and insanity as catalysts for war. But it is unfailingly witty in its speculation that international aggression isn’t driven by mania as much as facilitated by banality — the case for war as the unwitting spawn of so much interpersonal dick-waving.
The alpha dog here is Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), basically the PR guy for the (unseen) U.K. prime minister, who goes apeshit upon hearing a lower-level minister, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), make a questionable word choice during an radio interview, describing war in the Middle East as “unforeseeable.” Whatever that means. The first funny thing about In the Loop is the way language is parsed, with partisans on either side of the issue ready to pounce on any awkward functionary’s half-assed turn of phrase as though it had flowed from the pen of some scribbling Peggy Noonan type turning out pointed copy to be massaged by a small army of spin doctors before being spouted into the media circus where it’s regarded as, if not scripture, then some kind of code to be deciphered. In this case, Foster’s words are seized upon by the anti-war contingent in Washington, whose leader, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), hopes they represent a foothold with the British government. Alas, in a subsequent interview, Foster overcompensates and makes reference to “climbing the mountain of conflict,” a bit of apparently craven bullshit that earns him the sobriquet of “the Nazi Julie Andrews” from the emasculating Tucker, whose decidedly colorful way with words shames Foster and his imprecise stammers. And so it goes.
The second big joke here is the idea that, for career politicians, taking an actual stand before it’s perceived as the safe one to adopt is perceived as a career-killer. Karen’s young aide Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) has authored a brief that decimates the argument for war, but which Liza privately worries will hurt her standing among the hawks who are currently running the show. There’s a bit of a joke about fresh-faced Washington youngsters here, who can inadvertantly shift the balance of power by letting their hormones do too much of their thinking and sharing too much information with their Facebook friends. For example, Foster’s new political adviser, Toby Wright (Chris Addison) seems harmless enough but commits a huge gaffe when he casually mentions the U.S. government’s secret war preparations committee — implausibly named the Future Planning Committee, it’s essentially hidden in plain sight — to an old buddy who works for CNN.
As the invasion plans are brought before the U.N. Security Council for a vote, the frantic behind-the-scenes action reaches fever pitch, with Tucker worried that the vote won’t happen before the BBC goes public with information from Liza’s damaging report and various righteous opponents threatening to resign over the impending conflict. Is it a spoiler to mention that the doves ultimately get blindsided by the hawks? Facing off against Tucker with all good intentions, they’re essentially shark food. That can’t be a surprise in a movie like this, which provided me a locus for so many of the feelings of frustration I’ve had just reading newspapers over the last eight years. The ultimate deflation of the most crucial, epochal issues in favor of the most petty muckraking is the film’s coup de grace, partly because it’s so absurd, and partly because it’s so true. It’s a terrific, biting comedy about the world we live in.