You have to reach back pretty far to find good big-screen political satire. There was a brief shining moment in the '90s when Bullworth, Bob Roberts and Wag the Dog (and to a lesser extent, Primary Colors) signaled sharp silver-screen rebuttals to the political lunacy that runs rampant in our country. Leave it to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to drain the life from the genre by becoming living, breathing parodies of responsible politics. What satire could top their brazen and bald-faced hypocrisy and lies?
Hollywood abandoned the notion that money could be made by mocking our misleaders, leaving Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to step into the breach. Even wacky firebrand Oliver Stone came up neutered attempting to tackle the full impact of the Dubya years. Remarkably, the Coen brothers came closest with Burn After Reading, but their approach was too elliptical and smarty-pants clever to do any real damage.
Enter UK writer-director Armando Iannucci (producer of the British sitcom The Thick of It). Taking his cue from The Office, Iannucci delivers a deliciously corrosive backstage view of the Iraq War years, as Brits and Yanks danced around what they knew was a foregone conclusion of their own making. Firing off jokes, insults and F-bombs with giddy aplomb, his bitter and twisted In the Loop is a whirlwind assault on the Machiavellian double-dealings, egotistical chest-thumping, and the dimwitted scheming of political middle managers who care less about ideology and ethics and more about jockeying for position. From the White House to Whitehall, no character emerges unscathed, making clear that modern politics is filled with narcissistic sociopaths who will sacrifice any and all virtue for their little piece of power.
A low-level cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) deviates from the party line during a radio interview and offers the cryptic comment; "War is unforeseeable," setting off a political shitstorm. On the home front, the Prime Minster's chief policy strategist (a gleefully profane Peter Capaldi) goes into damage control mode while the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy (Mimi Kennedy) sees an opportunity to use Foster to end-run a Rumsfeldian State Department head (David Rasche), who is holding secret war meetings. With the aid of a dovish general (James Gandolfini), she hopes to help thwart the rush to war. Foster, clearly out of his league and saddled with a blundering new assistant (Chris Addison), just struggles to keep his job without appearing to endorse a war his government clearly wants to be part of.
Or does it? The genius of In the Loop is that no one seems to believe in anything other than gaining power or covering one's ass. The war just happens to provide a side to pick, and a chance to be on the winning team.
It's astute stuff filled with the kind of snarling, black-hearted cynicism that convinces you that this is actually how politics works. There are small details that just seem too real, like a scene where young Capitol Hill staffers maniacally mosh at a dive rock club as if it were primal scream therapy, then show up the next day perky, clean-cut and ready to draw blood.
And still, In the Loop manages to be deliriously funny — in that very dry, British way. Though the lines fly by at a furious accented clip, the ones you catch are inevitably quotable — "In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is the king" — with the best exchanges involving Capaldi's frothing Scotsman. He's a brilliantly foul-mouthed force of nature who berates everyone he encounters, ending phone calls with a nasty "Fuckety-bye-bye then." The rest of the cast is similarly excellent, with the American actors forced to remain as straight-faced and committed as the Brits to their relentlessly despicable characters.
And that may ultimately be the biggest problem for U.S. audiences — laughing at and with people who lie, cheat and betray without compunction. Real as they may all be, we Americans have a hard time delighting in irredeemable characters, especially when the worst of them never receives a comeuppance. Of course, it doesn't help that as In the Loop's raggedy plot gets more cleverly convoluted, Iannucci actually deflates the humor, wrapping things up on a low-key sour note that lacks drama or comic fanfare. Which is, I suppose, is the inevitable truth of leaders who smother the interests of a nation for personal gain. After all, didn't Bush and company quietly slip out the back door after laying waste to truth, justice and the American way?
At the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.