As a side note to all the discussion on politics in film going on this week at The Solute I thought I would highlight one of the most politics related film of all time. I’m guessing the word choice of “politics related” is confusing, but I did not want to use the word political. Armando Iannucci’s 2009 film is many things but political is not one of them. Despite being set almost entirely in government buildings, meetings, and political discussion, and despite having a cast almost entirely starring government workers, In the Loop strives to stay away from coming down on any one side, position, or party. At its most opinionated the film supports the idea that war is bad and unjustifiable, but that’s hardly a controversial stance. (Though given how the film’s fictional war parallels the Iraq War, a case could be made for the film having a liberal leaning.) More important than that stance however, is a much stronger presentation of an unstoppable corruption in politics, presenting it as a broken system that cannot be stopped.
The amount of sympathy In the Loop has for its subject can be most plainly seen in the film’s choice of a center. Tom Hollander’s Simon Foster is a spineless minister who barely managed to claw onto some small scrap of power, and is willing to debase himself to any degree to maintain that grip. I don’t want to depict Simon as power hungry though, as that would imply any kind of ambition or drive on his part. Simon is mostly characterized by a runaway willingness to please, and any political positions he holds he mostly holds out of fear of reprisal from the Prime Minister’s omnipresent Director of Communication Malcolm Tucker. After Simon makes contradicting vague statements on a possible war in the Middle East, calling it both “unforeseeable” and “possibly inevitable”, he is tapped by two opposing US state officials to support their cause against and for the war. Simon stands in to represent the typical politician in Iannucci’s eyes, one that feels pressured to toe the party line so forcefully his statements and opinions are ultimately meaningless. Lacking conviction for any of his actions, Simon is instead used as a “meat puppet” for both sides to give them more visible support. Even when Simon is forced to resign as part of a last ditch effort to give his career some dignity, he is denied that pleasure and fired instead. A suicide bomber is compared favorably to him because “a suicide bomber makes a decision”. Though Simon’s political affiliation’s can be inferred (Labour Party, in case you were wondering), it ultimately doesn’t matter, as what Iannucci views as important is not what Simon believes, but how little he is willing to fight for it.
To that end Iannucci shoots the movie with as much tension as possible. While far more comedic than dramatic, a lot of the tone is established from his close shots, sharp editing, and rapid documentary-esque camera movements. On that last point there is a clear similarity, if not outright influence from, Christopher Guest’s oeuvre. However while his films tend to have a very dry tone reflected by their composition, the sharply edited/sloppily shot chaos of In the Loop generates a lot of stress and tension for the narrative. This is paired with a narrative that delivers tons of twists and turns, with new information being given to the viewer in every scene, along with rapid fire dialog you will not catch all of in one or even three sittings. The final result is a film that attempts (and succeeds) in sweeping you away, sending you barreling down a rabbit hole of secret meetings and double crossings, leaving you unsure of where you stand and who you support. The viewer is left with not a deeper understanding of the political sphere per se, but a deeper understanding in how confusing the system is even to those inside of it. Confusion and ambiguity is In the Loop’s stock and trade, as keeping up with what motivates the characters and how much each person knows and how much info they can wield is as much of a chore for us as it is for the politicians in the film. In this way, Iannucci creates a chaotic momentum that puts the viewer in Simon’s viewpoint, as we are given the sense of a system larger than us but outside of our control because it is outside of our full understanding.
The terrifying, unstoppable force of the political system sounds like it would be much more dramatic fare than what In the Loop actually winds up being. This is because Iannucci has one more trick up his sleeve to further debase the current state of politics: have the characters never stop debasing each other. In the Loop’s prime source of comedy is it’s now famous cavalcade of insults that each character flings at one another in its fast paced scenes (his TV work, The Thick of It and Veep also share this). “Nazi Julie Andrews”, “pussy drip”, and “Love Actually” are just a sample of some of the more memorable ones, and most involve some kind of sexual metaphor, usually in the form of sexual humiliation. Conversations in the movie avoid the ideal of compromise and instead are constant games of one-upmanship, even when the combatants are on the same side. Battles of words and ideals played through the medium of souped up playground insults are the stock and trade of Iannucci’s politicians, creating more roadblocks to progress than anything else. Combine this pettiness with bright, sharp lighting and a lack of score, and it’s clear that the film is trying to undercut any drama in its tone and presentation. Not only is this effective to creating a comedy out of some very dark material, but it also again speaks to the clear disdain Iannucci and his writers have for the characters involved. The weight of their job is never understated in the text, a James Gandolfini’s Lt. Gen. Miller is candid that the war will cost at least twelve thousand lives, but completely undercut by the tone. It is impossible to take these characters seriously when their primary mode of communication is violent cursing, yet the tragedy comes from them having the most important jobs in the world. Twelve thousand people implicitly lose their lives by the end of this movie, and it’s obvious we’re supposed to be disgusted at the cast for not being able to stop it.
The stance of Iannucci and his writers on modern politics can best be summed up by an ending scene where, after the UN vote to approve the war, we check in on the anti-war side on US soil. Earlier, Simon entered a pact with Miller and U.S Assistant to the Secretary of State Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) to all simultaneously resign in protest to the war if the resolution passes. Now, Simon has been unceremoniously fired and Miller elects to stay in his position in order to return to combat. This leaves Clark, who already handed in her resignation, betrayed, powerless, and ultimately meaningless. What was supposed to be a meaningful gesture winds up completely empty, through no fault of her own. The system she’s in is bigger than her, bigger than anyone, and she is ultimately forced to face facts that her actions from the start were ultimately ineffective. It’s a deeply cynical statement Iannucci and his writers are making, but it’s an important one. As our nation, and nations all over the world, become increasingly partisan and divided, and as we put an increasing stock into picking sides in politics and us vs. them rhetoric, it’s refreshing to have a film that is politically nihilist at its center. Though I personally do not hold our government in as much contempt as the film does, I think In the Loop should be celebrated for its fresh takes on how these systems fail us.