War may indeed be hell, but on screen the polarity of its heightened stakes can make occasional fodder for some wicked comedy, which is certainly the case with the very funny In the Loop, a feverishly pitched political satire in which low- to mid-level British diplomats and their American counterparts all try to advance their own contrasting agendas during the lead-up to a preemptive war in the Middle East. It’s rare, the movie that consistently delivers this much towel-snapping pleasure in its dialogue, and it’s rarer still that it comes attached to something that wants to make you think. For that reason, In the Loop is the perfect indie antidote to so much droning, effects-laden summer fare.
Iraq is never explicitly mentioned, and so In the Loop vaguely unfolds in a nebulous, alt-universe present day, though clearly its narrative is a farcical stand-in for the prelude to that invasion. Against this backdrop, the movie throws together nearly a dozen clashing personalities, almost all arguably jockeying for some degree of personal glory and/or taking delight in the stumbles of a rival while also happening to execute their official duties.
While their respective heads of state (never glimpsed) seem set on a path to war, dovish American Lt. General George Miller (James Gandolfini) doesn’t think invasion is the answer, and neither does the British Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander). After Foster accidentally seems to rule out military action in an innocuous TV interview, he suddenly has some new friends in Washington, D.C., including Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her aide, Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky).
Meanwhile, as Foster and his harried new political advisor, Toby Wright (Chris Addison, above right), try to repair his image, a pros-and-cons-of-war memo penned by Liza, an old college friend of Toby’s, leaks out and is misconstrued by various parties. All of this frustrates to no end the Prime Minister’s chief communications spin-doctor and pit bull, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, above left), who’s helping push a war resolution vote at the United Nations.
Co-written and directed by Armando Iannucci, In the Loop is delightfully acerbic, and well acted across the board. There’s an effervescence and manic, wheels-spinning charm to all the turmoil and dressings-down that is reminiscent of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, and the entire thing is cut together with the energy and verve of a top-shelf action movie. Over an hour into the film, there’s a jarring moment of silence for an establishing shot, and it’s here that one most fully realizes just how crammed with whip smart, overlapping banter almost every other nook and cranny is.
Overall, the narrative focus skews toward the British side; its humor (or perhaps that should be spelled humour) leans a bit more heavily on across-the-pond notions of bureaucratic gear-grinding, as evidenced by Foster’s continuing inability to speak in bland, safe aphorisms (never really a problem for American politicians), and an arguably extraneous story strand involving Steve Coogan as an English constituent angry about a collapsing wall near his mother’s property. Hubris, workplace rage, and CYA-protectionism is universal, though, and accordingly In the Loop translates smashingly well. (IFC Films, R, 106 minutes)