In The Loop

In theory, In The Loop is just completely unnecessary. As an exercise to try and spread the word about hit BBC show The Thick Of It to smart American audiences—sure, I can see that (and it worked!). But why do a Thick Of It movie? There’s not a ton of difference going on style-wise—yes, the sets are nicer and there’s a couple famous actors in it—but otherwise, it’s just an overlong episode of the show.

But of course, In The Loop is completely essential. It’s crazy to imagine it not being made. By focusing on foreign policy (the lead-up to a fictional war, heavily inspired by the Iraq War) and bringing back the regular cast to play new characters (except for Malcolm and Jamie, of course) it manages to be a completely incisive, acidic, indispensable critique of the rush to war. By using The Thick Of It’s extremely capable cast and format, it manages to be extremely hilarious. And by breaking from continuity and adding Americans, it keeps things fresh and doesn’t fuck up continuity for any future seasons of the show.

A plotline about the U.K.’s critical involvement in the buildup to the war in Iraq would have felt very out of place on The Thick Of It. Sure, maybe they could crowbar it in, have the characters staff up for the Foreign Minister, but it probably wouldn’t have worked as well. The DOSAC focus is always going to keep things domestic on that show—perhaps that’s why Armando Iannucci went in a different direction for Veep, because he can touch on any area of policy there.

Still, The Thick Of It is a show about Malcolm Tucker more than anything, and Malcolm Tucker is based on Alistair Campbell, who was the crucial behind-the-scenes man on both sides of the pond in the buildup to the war. It’s crazy (and fascinating) how crucial British intelligence was for the “weapons of mass destruction” argument. Anyway, that gives you great grounding for a movie—it makes everyone’s sojourns to America seem less far-fetched.

At the same time, In The Loop doesn’t overstate the importance of British politics in the buildup to war. The real buildup is happening offscreen. We don’t see the president or the secretary of state, and it’s clear that the decision to go to war has already been made by the powers that be. The question now is just how to finesse it, and our heroes are mostly pawns (witting and unwitting) in that game. That’s why the buffoonish but hawkish Assistant Secretary of State Linton (David Rasche) is so supremely confident, while dovish Karen (Mimi Kennedy) is so consistently agitated. She knows she’s on the losing side, she just wants to make as big a stink as possible before resigning.

Anyway, our protagonist Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), MP for “International Development,” another invented position, fills the role of Hugh or Nicola. He’s the ultimate pawn, vacillating between support and opposition to the war—depending to whom he’s talking. In typical farcical style, this idiot is enough to set everything off: He gets the press going by telling them “war is unforeseeable” and then that we must “climb the mountain of conflict.” He and his dopey, conniving new assistant Toby (Chris Addison, a.k.a. Ollie) leak news of the war committee, then the anti-war position paper. It’s all coming from them, as they furiously try to position themselves as, well, being in-the-loop.

Simon is a great character—Hollander is doing something different while holding onto the crucial befuddlement. He’s not as vacant and tired as Hugh, neither is he as terrified and eager to avoid conflict as Nicola. He has a bleak sense of humor about Malcolm coming to eviscerate him, and he pushes back (briefly) every time before being demolished. It’s also great to see him interacting with his constituents, particularly the infuriated Steve Coogan. I don’t know why The Thick Of It never explored that, because it’s such a hilarious part of being an MP (even the Prime Minister has to do it from time to time) and it ties in nicely to Simon’s ultimate downfall.

Everyone else has undergone more subtle changes. Toby is an even sourer character than Ollie. Again, he’s introduced to us as the protagonist we should root for—it’s his first day on the job, he seems like a friendly sort, and everyone iss screaming around him. But he is as cut-throat as anyone, willing to chuck Simon or Judy (Gina McKee, playing a more competent version of Terri) under the bus at the first hint of trouble. He switches to Malcolm’s side when all seems lost, he cheats on his girlfriend and says he did it because he was trying to stop the war… at no point should you feel sorry for him. It’s audacious stuff, and it creeps up on you. Sure, he gets his comeuppance of sorts, losing his job at international affairs, but it’s quietly done; there’s no moralizing at work here.

James Smith plays a minor role as diplomacy expert Michael, working alongside Ollie’s girlfriend Emma (who here is Toby’s girlfriend Suzie). We only briefly glimpse Joanna Scanlan (Terri) as the woman in charge of Simon’s constituency. There’s also glimpses of the rest of the ensemble—there’s a very thinly disguised Julius Nicholson as the U.K. Ambassador to the UN, but he’s basically the same guy, still able to set Malcolm’s teeth on edge just by talking.

They’re all pros. The Americans are the real wild cards—but everyone does well, although James Gandolfini is a bit of a jarring presence. Everyone else is clearly down with the improv-heavy format. Rasche is a particular standout, with Zach Woods and future Veep star Anna Chlumsky each getting in some funny moments. There’s something about Gandolfini’s delivery that’s confusing at first, but eventually you learn to roll with it, even though he never quite makes sense as the peace-loving general. The idea, I guess, is that he is a little pent-up after years at the Pentagon, and the eventual reveal that he is just as hypocritical as the rest is nicely handled, but his character never feels complete. But maybe it’s just that he’s a star in a big ensemble, and you expect him to stand out even more.

What is ultimately brilliant, and chilling, about In The Loop is that it takes the same farcical, sweary, manic approach as The Thick Of It, but it’s about the rush to war. The idea being that government is just as fucked up when it comes to such weighty manners, even though you expect everyone to take things a little slower before committing troops to a foreign country. But no: Everyone’s still jockeying for prime position, trying to keep their jobs, abd stay in the inner circle. One of the best conceits is that Liza (Chlumsky) wrote a well-researched paper that deflates the argument for war, but she doesn’t even care. She’s just afraid she’ll lose her job for being on the wrong side of things.

Stray observations:

  • Oh boy. It’s been a pleasure covering this show this summer and I’m looking forward to season four next year. That will get the rest of the show put online so more people can check it out; the only thing barring this show from overexposure is how difficult it is to stream it legally. Here’s hoping things change. Meanwhile, In The Loop is on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, do.
  • So many good lines in this movie. Here are just a few:
  • “I don’t understand how my parents’ limited reproductive ability reflects badly on me. I mean, I’m the sperm that made it.” Chad has a positive spin on being an only child.
  • Simon’s quote to the press on the war is hysterical: “All sorts of things that are actually very likely are also unforeseeable. For the plane, in the fog, the mountain is unforeseeable but then it is suddenly very real and inevitable… What I’m saying is, that to walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict.”
  • Malcolm nails it when yelling at Simon: “You sound like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews!”
  • Linton wants to hear no more facts about the war: “In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is the king.”
  • He is alarmed by Karen’s problem teeth: “I cannot stand to see a woman bleed from the mouth. It reminds me of country and Western music, which I just cannot abide. That stuff is just choking the airways.”
  • Malcolm is furious at meeting with American officials who are barely out of college. “Apparently your fucking master race of highly gifted toddlers can’t get the job done.”
  • Jamie is the real star of this movie. “Well, if it isn’t Humpty Numpty.” “What is this, surround bollocking?” “Hey, with due respect, I hadn’t finished. If it isn’t Humpty Numpty sitting on a collapsing wall like some clueless egg cunt. Now I’m finished.”
  • Jamie can barely stand saying hello. “That’s enough with the fucking Oxbridge pleasantries.” “What’s Oxbridge about saying hello?” “SHUT IT, LOVE ACTUALLY! Want me to hole-punch your face?”
  • Simon says Britain has fought some good wars. “The Crimean War, we got nurses out of that.”
  • Malcolm gets a great kiss-off line in his showdown with Miller. “Don’t ever call me fucking English again.”
  • Jamie on opera: “For a start, turn that fucking racket off! It’s just VOWELS! Subsidized fucking foreign vowels! The only reason you listen to this shit is because it’s bad form to actually wear a hat that SAYS I WENT TO PRIVATE SCHOOL!”