Film Review: In the Loop

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PARK CITY -- You laugh mightily at the British political satire "In the Loop," which surveys the frantic machinations of British and American government ministers, advisers, underlings, interns, military officers and fire-breathing communications chiefs in the days leading up to the decision to invade Iraq.

But those laughs catch in the throat. This is fiction, of course, yet you do worry: What if this is close to what really happened? Altered documents, misleading statements, lack of intelligence, internal in-fighting and deliberate diversions -- they all play so true to life.

The film is an outgrowth of an award-winning BBC series "The Thick of It," which ran in 2005 and again in 2007. Overseeing this film spinoff is British writer-director Armando Iannucci. IFC Films picked up U.S. distribution for "In the Loop" only moments before its Park City premiere. It may have an art house winner: "In the Loop" is so funny that it hurts.

Like the series, the film employs a pseudo-documentary method, shot with two cameras so actors can improvise and move at breakneck speed. Viewing the tragic mishaps and blunders on both sides of the Atlantic as a screwball comedy, Iannucci and his cohorts catch each character at just the moment that pressures from up on high cause a total shedding of civil behavior.

They spew venom at one another with a rapid-fire delivery. The inventiveness of the swearing and the sheer magnitude of the obscenities are awe-inspiring. The cultural references are hilarious: The utter youth of the American aides provokes one Brit to refer to "Bugsy Malone," Alan Parker's 1976 film where children play all the roles in a gangster movie. A daft minister whose mangled words causes him to opine that "Britain must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict" causes another to snarl that he is a "Nazi Julie Andrews" -- in reference, of course, to "The Sound of Music."

Everyone jealously guards his own self-interest. Intelligence is faked, compromise is everywhere, and the innocent are eaten by political wolves. All these calamitous events lead up a U.N. Security Council vote on Iraq.

The cast is large, but searing into one's brain to the point those images won't easily be expelled are Peter Capaldi as the PM's poisoned-tongued director of communications; Tom Hollander -- as close as the ensemble movie comes to a central figure -- as a befuddled minister of a backwater bureaucracy whose foot-in-mouth comments cause endless havoc; Chris Addison as his equally clueless political adviser; and Gina McKee as a communications maven impervious to colorful invectives.

On the American side, James Gandolfini's Pentagon general fights a furious rear action against State Department careerist David Rasche, who intends to bury a briefing paper with too strong an anti-war bias written by Anna Chlumsky's in-over-her-head assistant.

A subplot back in the minister's Northampton constituency about a back wall threatening to collapse into the yard of the mum of an angry voter (Steve Coogan) makes for a hysterical diversion. Indeed the British press gives this nearly as much ink as the vote to go to war.

Which, of course, is the film's satirical point. Everyone has his eye on career, ambition, pride, status and backstabbing; no one has his eye on the ball. Scary stuff.

Production: BBC Films, U.K. Film Council in association with Aramid Entertainment
Sales: Protagonist Pictures

Cast: James Gandolfini, Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison, Gina McKee, David Rasche
Director: Armando Iannucci
Screenwriters: Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
Producers: Kevin Loader, Adam Tandy
Executive producer: David M. Thompson
Director of photography: Jamie Cairney
Production designer: Cristina Casali
Music: Adem Ilhan, the Elysian Quartet
Costume designer: Ros Little
Editors: Billy Sneddon, Anthony Boys

No rating, 105 minutes