Read Dana Stevens’ review of In the Loop.
Television comedies-turned-movies have a spotty track record: For every South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, there are a few Bewitched s and Flintstones es. It’s certainly not a genre associated with rapturous critical reception, but that’s exactly what the scathing political satire In the Loop—a spinoff of the cult BBC series The Thick of It— has enjoyed since its Sundance premiere last January. Set amid an Anglo-American scrum of government officials, lackeys, and PR handlers on the eve of an undermotivated war in the Middle East, In the Loop is a painfully comic film à clef on the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq—and one that creates a new, perhaps impassable standard for creative deployment of the word fuck.
For most stateside viewers, the movie also provides a belated introduction to its director, Armando Iannucci, the prolific writer-producer who has been a mainstay of radio and TV comedy in the United Kingdom for two decades. In addition to creating and co-writing The Thick of It, Iannucci was one of the creators of the ‘90s fake-news classic The Day Today, a proto-Daily Show and a forerunner of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G Show. Iannucci also co-created Knowing Me, Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge: a talk-show parody and sitcom, respectively, that turned Steve Coogan’s blundering sportscaster from The Day Today into one of the immortal fools of British popular culture. The Scottish-born Iannucci is virtually unknown here (and just short of a household name back home), but thanks to YouTube and multiregion DVD players, U.S. viewers can catch up with one of the most influential comedy minds in the English-speaking world.
Or make that the English-swearing world: The Thick of It and In the Loop are symphonies of virtuosic profanity (the BBC’s sign-language service has had to create five new signs to accommodate The Thick of It’s blue neologisms), much of it supplied by menacing communications director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a man who can render the commonplace “Would you like to step into my office?” as “Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off.” The relentless verbal assault is sensationally funny, but it’s also part and parcel of Iannucci’s long-standing fascination with the debasement of language and debate in politics and news media. “I’m interested in the abuse of argument,” Iannucci told the Independent in 2006. In that light, Tucker’s decidedly abusive command of simile (“He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo”), hyperbole (“I’d love to stop and chat but I’d rather have type 2 diabetes”), and paraprosdokian (“Go and buy a goat a whole village can fuck”) can be seen as a means to keep his cognitive muscles limber for his next feat of dizzying spin—as when hapless British MP Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) inconveniently claims in a radio interview that war is “unforeseeable.” “You may have heard him say it,” Tucker tells the press, “but he never said it, and that is a fact.”
This Orwell-meets-“Who’s on First?” rhetorical style was one that Iannucci first honed on the news satire The Day Today (1994). Long before Stephen Colbert popularized “truthiness,” The Day Today was coining the term factgasm and screening an info-graphic titled “Facts x Importance = News.” In one priceless segment, anchor Chris Morris (who developed the show with Iannucci from their radio program, On the Hour) turns from moderator into agitator, twisting what should be a dry exchange about a trade agreement into a declaration of war in “the upper cataracts of the Australia-Hong Kong border,” whereupon the newsroom instantly transforms: new lighting, rejiggered theme music, and a field correspondent shouting, “People here are literally bursting with war!” Nearly a decade before the careful stage-management of the 2003 Iraq campaign, Iannucci and Morris had imagined armed conflict as arousing infotainment, manufactured out of bellicose impulse.
The Day Today casts a long shadow. Morris’ character owed much to the pugnacious BBC Newsnight institution Jeremy Paxman, though American viewers might imagine him as Colbert in the form of an Oxbridge-toned cyborg. And Sacha Baron Cohen was surely taking notes when Morris asked British pop star Kim Wilde for her take on London’s new policy of booting homeless people as you would an illegally parked car or when he grilled MP Paul Boeteng about the social impact of fictitious hip-hop artist Herman the Tosser.
The show also marked the first television appearances of On the Hour sports correspondent Alan Partridge. (“If you were alive in England in the nineties,” as John Lahr wrote in a New Yorker profile of Steve Coogan in 2007, “… Alan Partridge was one of the cultural icons by which you measured time, a Malvolio of media personalities.”) Coogan created the character at Iannucci’s prompting; part of the joke, as Iannucci later explained to Lahr, was that Partridge knew little about his area of expertise, so even something as straightforward as a soccer goal would inspire commentary like “Twat! That was liquid football!” Knowing Me, Knowing You (1994-95) used Partridge’s ineptitude to expose the creaking mechanics of the talk-show format (a flustered Alan might blurt out to his guest, “Do the anecdote,” and upon delivery, reply, “That wasn’t very good”), and I’m Alan Partridge (1997, 2002) watched his disgraced retreat from television to a graveyard radio shift and a sad room in a motor lodge. Smug yet aggrieved, socially retarded, prodigiously stupid, morbidly entitled, and fairly palpitating with self-loathing, Alan Partridge provided the DNA for Ricky Gervais’ David Brent and, by extension, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. (In his British Film Institute monograph on The Office, Ben Walters notes that co-writer Stephen Merchant would often call out to Gervais during filming, “Too Partridge! You’ve gone too Partridge!”)
Yet Iannucci and Coogan didn’t allow their creature to become wholly repellent; one can always glimpse a shade of a grasping, panicked human being amid the walking catastrophe that is Alan Partridge. Indeed, all of Iannucci’s work has a subterranean compassion—a virtue that contributes to his superb grasp of pacing.The ritual humiliations of Partridge would be fleetingly interrupted for a semi-triumphant ABBA medley or the nerdy, private joy of playing air bass. And The Thick of It catches the viewer off-guard when it arranges for Malcolm Tucker, of all people, to rescue an aging political adviser from a nervous breakdown-in-progress.
It’s typical of Iannucci’s control as a writer-creator that, just as Partridge never became a monster, Tucker is not quite a villain—he’s nasty and terrifying and acid-tongued, yes, but he’s not a hypocrite, and he has a certain sulfurous integrity. While his colleagues tie themselves into knots of guilt, vanity, and self-delusion (at one point, Simon Foster dares to ask out loud, “Is the really brave thing actually doing what you don’t believe?”), Tucker has no such burdens, because his own self-interest is perfectly aligned with advancing his party’s agenda, whatever that may be. In his review of In the Loop, British film critic Jonathan Romney describes Tucker as “Mephistophelean,” which is fantastically apt: The devil first appeared to Faust as a friar and there is something of the mendicant about the gaunt and seemingly sleepless Tucker, monomaniacally devoted to his cause. Perhaps it’s yet another exemplum of the complexity and sharp surprise of Armando Iannucci’s comedy that the closest we can find to a morally consistent character also happens to be the one shouting, “Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock.”