The differences between British and American politics are many, but to contrast their portrayals on-screen, you need look no further than the two versions of State of Play. In the original British TV serial, an up-and-coming young legislator catches the Tube to work. In the American movie version, he sits regally in a car driven by a lackey. In the U.K., the typical approach to politics-as-entertainment is fast-paced, ensemble-oriented and irreverent — a “warts and all” depiction with emphasis on the warts, moles and facial hair. In the U.S., even in wonky dramas such as “The West Wing,” it’s hard not to get a sense that we still want to see our leaders as modern-day versions of straight-backed George Washington crossing the Delaware.
There may be no better primer on dignity-free politics than the British satire In the Loop. The closest it has to a protagonist is Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the unseen prime minister’s chief spin doctor, who comes on-screen spewing baroque profanity and never stops. The PM wants the option of supporting the U.S. president in his intention of declaring war on an unnamed Middle Eastern country. But one of the cabinet ministers, Simon Powell (Tom Hollander), has made the mistake of carelessly telling a radio interviewer he thinks war is “unforeseeable.”
Tucker’s job is to bludgeon (verbally) the errant minister into toeing the party line, which he proceeds to do with gusto. But a visiting official from the U.S. State Department (Mimi Kennedy) wants to use Powell as a pawn in her efforts to halt the build-up to war; a report authored by her young aide (Anna Chlumsky) suggests the president is acting on faulty intelligence. Soon she and an antiwar general (James Gandolfini) are engaged in a tug-of-war with Tucker for the hapless minister’s soul. As for the rather dim object of their attentions, who can’t stop putting his foot in his mouth, he’s less interested in taking stands on war than in deciding which starlet he’d bring with him to a desert island.
The action jumps from London to D.C. to the U.N. building, giving director Armando Iannucci and his writing team a chance to make important people on both sides of the Atlantic look venal and stupid. That they do, and have fun doing it. The movie is spun off from Iannucci’s ongoing U.K. TV series “The Thick of It,” and incorporates some of the stars of the show — in particular, Capaldi, who should be better known here. Hunching his shoulders and jutting his neck like a vulture, he practically hisses as he savages his interlocutors. (A relatively mild sample: Sent to a White House briefing with a fresh-faced aide, Tucker sneers, “No offense, son, but you look like you should still be at school with your head down a fucking toilet.”)
The other characters give as good as they get, lobbing barbed metaphors and pop-culture references like table-tennis pros. The script is eminently quotable, and virtually all the performances are rich, from Gandolfini’s as the general, who points out acidly that there aren’t enough troops for a new engagement (“at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost”) to David Rasche’s dry, sinister turn as a hawkish Assistant Secretary of State who keeps a live grenade on his desk.
Rasche also appeared last year in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, a comedy set in the Washington milieu that wasn’t satirizing anything but the general stupidity of people, spies and bureaucrats included. In mood and tone, In the Loop has a lot more in common with the Coens’ film than it does with high-concept political satires such as Dr. Strangelove and Wag the Dog.
Unlike Burn After Reading, though, it has more to offer the audience than a massive concluding WTF. Iannucci presents a fairly plausible vision in which the fate of the world depends on the machinations of overgrown middle schoolers taking sides on the political playground. No references are made to real events, but the applications seem obvious. And the message — that trying to steer public opinion in a democracy is no dignified pursuit — rings loud and clear.