“Satire” is a word that gets thrown around a lot without much care these days, often being used as a cover from any and all criticism about its intention or aim. However, a truly satirical work is never coy about its targets or its method of attack; it is out to expose, ridicule, and sharply criticize cultural systems using every comedic tool at their disposal. It’s designed to bite, using humor and wit to highlight the despair that lies beneath our own attitudes and beliefs. Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” tackles Cold War paranoia through the lens of an impending nuclear attack; Terry Jones’ “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” irreverently attacks organized religion’s interest in capitalizing on the gullibility of the masses; and Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop” sets its sights on Bush-era foreign policy, vilifying government officials’ self-interest, Anglo-American relations, and short-sighted decision making that ultimately has catastrophic results.
Technically a spin-off of his TV series “The Thick of It,” an equally damning satire but of British parliamentary politics, “In the Loop” follows the lead-up to a military intervention in the Middle East (read: The Iraq War) from the perspective of state department underlings. In the UK, bumbling Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) accidentally says that a war in the Middle East is “unforeseeable,” angering the profane, perpetually enraged Prime Minister’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, in his defining role carried over from “The Thick of It”) who tells him to toe the line. Meanwhile in America, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her assistant Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) are strongly opposed to intervention and have teemed up with General George Miller (James Gandolfini) to try to raise objections to a possible war as the impulsive, trigger-happy Assistant Secretary of State for Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) sets up a secret war committee to get the ball rolling. Information gets leaked, chaos ensues, and after all the smoke has cleared and lies are sold, war is eventually declared.
Amidst all the laughs, it can be easy to forget that “In the Loop” has a stunningly bleak worldview. Basically every character is depicted as either power-hungry, vindictive, or cowardly as they unintentionally play with innocent lives in order to further personal agendas. Even the anti-interventionists, ostensibly “the good guys,” are ultimately ineffectual and paralyzed either by bureaucratic red tape or stronger, more toxic political agendas. No one is spared from Iannucci’s wrath as he demonstrates how real policy decisions are achieved in hallways and cramped hotel rooms by overworked subordinates rather than by world leaders with precise rhetoric. Iannucci even depicts Toby (Chris Addison), the bewildered audience surrogate, as a vengeful, spineless asshole who doesn’t have the guts to leak an important policy paper that might prevent a war because he could lose his job in the process (which happens anyway.)
Though “In the Loop” is very, very funny (every line of dialogue is brilliantly conceived and delivered; it’s rare that a movie is funny from beginning to end, but it’s even rarer to see profanity employed to such pointed effect), it’s also the definitive satirical commentary of post-9/11 politics, a time when neo-conservative foreign policy reigned supreme and seemingly haphazard decisions made by inept politicians were causing catastrophe every other day. But Iannucci never suggests that the actions in the film are of a specific time and place, but rather that the never-ending cycle of indifferent, impotent politicians will keep running things into the ground because it’s the only way to maintain the status quo. By the end, all of the principal characters have either been fired or promoted and a new batch of aides and underlings are ready to move up the ranks to make the same mistakes. It’s almost too ironic that “In the Loop” premiered at Sundance two days after Barack Obama was first inaugurated. In the words of Malcolm Tucker quoting the late, great Nat King Fucking Cole, “Unforeseeable, that’s what you are.”