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movies / July 26, 2009
By Eileen Jones


Finally, fa-HINE-ally, someone has made a proper comedy. Armando Iannucci, to be exact, with In the Loop, his annihilating satire of recent Anglo-American misadventures in the Middle East. It’s getting fantastic reviews and it deserves every one of them. It’s so ruthlessly funny, I missed half the lines because of the shocked laughter in the theater. So it might be twice as funny as I think it is, and that’s off the charts. Go see it!

I admit I’ve been abysmally ignorant of this wondrous Iannucci—why does nobody TELL me these things?—and must now correct my ignorance with a thorough examination of his BBC Four show The Thick of It, which provides the source material for In the Loop. A central character in both is government communications chief Malcom Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a splenetic Scot whose job it is to spin stupid policy pronouncements. His general method is to erupt in gloriously obscene invective at everyone regardless of age, sex, or status.


Here’s his diatribe to colleague Judy (Gina McKee), who dares to use the prissy word “purview” in his presence:

Where do you think you are, in some sort of regency fucking costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel!…Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!

The catalyst for the action is a press interview gone awry because a hapless Brit cabinet minister named Simon Foster says war in the Middle East is “unforeseeable.” This harmless-seeming word choice sends Malcom Tucker into overdrive. (“You may have heard him say it, but he didn’t say it, and that’s a fact…Fuckety-bye.”)

In trying to correct himself for the record, Foster makes it worse with the blithering statement: “To walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict.”

(Tucker: “You sound like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews!”)

Foster’s slogan winds up enshrined on the wall of an appalling Rumsfeldesque US State Department hawk, Linton Barwick (David Rasche in an eerily perfect performance). Now a pawn in Barwick’s rush to war, Foster heads to Washington D.C. where he also contends with the conversion efforts of Barwick’s political nemesis Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her co-conspirator General Miller (James Gandolfini), who are maneuvering to prevent the war.


With no agenda of his own other than to avoid the humiliation of being “room meat”—present in the conference room where important things are happening, but not allowed to talk—the feckless Foster is in way over his sad little gnome-like head. (To appreciate Hollander’s range, just recall his excellent performance as the coldly proficient agent of the East India Tea Company, Lord Cutler Beckett, in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.)

When wiry, vibrating Malcom Tucker arrives in Washington to coach Simon Foster in keeping his mouth shut, one of the first thing that happens to him, as he’s ranting profanely into his cell phone, is an American man on the street, fat and slow and clueless, objecting to his bad language. This sets off another tirade, of course, but also points up an interesting cultural observation. Why are we fat and slow and clueless? What happened to us, that this should be our image? Why do the Brits deal with political insanity leading up to the Iraq war fiasco by making the scalpel-sharp In the Loop, and Americans make dull-witted, lumbering messes like Oliver Stone’s W.? We had every chance and all the material in the world to make the most beautifully outraged and outrageous black comedies, and we blew it.

Here’s Exhibit A of American thickness, a reader response to the glowing review A.O. Scott gave the movie in The New York Times:

I didn’t enjoy the movie; in fact, I found it infantile. It may have been “sharply written, fast-talking, almost dementedly articulate,” but the wall-to-wall usage of swearwords did not create an ambiance, it simply detracted it from the essence of the important message.
— solopiano, New York City

See, in the olden days, Americans were also sharp, fast, and articulate, and thought that was a good thing. A Hollywood studio mogul once told some fathead who believed that movies should be nothing more than message-delivery systems, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

In the Loop gets right down to business mock-documenting an unlovely world of drab cubicles, glass-box offices, generic hotel rooms, and badly-lit conference rooms peopled by pasty-faced shills and high-powered grotesques who live on greasy take-out food, job-related cocktail party fare, and stress. Young aides and interns (Chris Addison, Olivia Poulet, Anna Chlumsky, Zach Woods) learn the ropes of lying, back-stabbing, and pompous rationalizing in a facile monkey-see, monkey-do manner, and are immediately involved in criss-crossing secret deals themselves.

This is all building up to the climactic UN vote to go to war which, in a burst of directorial confidence, Iannucci doesn’t even bother to show us. We remember the official version, after all. So the film ends with a whimper, a lull after the vote, as various characters take in What Just Happened. It gives us a chance to ponder it too, now that we’ve seen the entirely believable “inside baseball” version.

One final point: you might suppose this Iannucci is some sort of weak Johnny-come-lately who dares to satirize the run-up to the Iraq war now, many years and scandalous revelations later, when it’s safe to do so. But here’s a quick sample of a piece for The Observer written by Iannucci and Chris Morris in March 2002, only six months after 9/11 (and thanks to Mark Ames for sending it along):

Six months that changed a year

Introducing an absolute atrocity special by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris

Sunday March 17, 2002

The Observer

9/11: The planes strike – as Martin Amis memorably describes them – ‘sleeking in like harsh metal ducklings’.

Tony Blair publicly drains every drop of blood from his wife to help the injured of New York.

Taking his time, George W. Bush formulates a measured response – which turns out to be the most expensive bollocking ever unleashed against shepherds.

But are we starting to forget?

Figures show that even as the second tower fell, people were switching off their televisions, complaining they’d seen it all before.

Today in these pages, we help you make up your own mind about the absolute necessity of fighting the ongoing war that is Operation Improving Bloodbath….

Terror’s march backwards


9/11: The attacks change forever the British convention for placing the day before the month in dates.

12th: Washington informs Tony Blair of attack on US.

13th: The immediate aftermath of the attacks generates fear and paranoia across America. Angry shoppers beat up a woman who’s put a towel on her head to dry her hair, while people whose faces look like aeroplanes are subject to 24-hour curfew….

14th: Airlines report no one willing to fly. Bush insists this is a sign of defiance and commissions Hollywood to make films in which being scared to go on an aeroplane is an act of bravery. Filming immediately commences on an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called Absolute Refusal about a businessman who cannot face boarding a plane but heroically makes a meeting in Cairo by crossing the Atlantic on a pedalo.

16th: Speculation about US retaliation grows. Expert opinion is divided over whether the ‘medievalist’ regime of Afghanistan should be bombed back to the Stone Age or forward into the twenty-first century. The prevailing Hawk argument runs: ‘There’s a big stone at the back of the Stone Age and we’ll bomb them so hard back into that, they’ll bounce all the way forward to 2002.’

19th: The pop singer Michael Jackson is refused permission to lie down and sing songs from his new album into the World Trade Centre rubble….

26th: Bush cheers American nation by launching Operation Death Unto Allah. Concern from coalition partners that this might constitute some sort of gaffe.

27th: There are delays in sending American special forces to Afghanistan when the entire air force refuse to fly in a plane.

30th: Twelve days after the collapse of the World Trade Centre, amazed rescue workers uncover an entire office floor that is still doing business. Despite falling 890 feet and being buried under 12,000 tons of rubble, all workers at Leeman Sachs Trading Inc are unharmed. They have remained at their desks since the bank’s Tokyo HQ saw television pictures of the burning towers, called them up and ordered them to keep working. ‘We were still sitting at our desks when we landed in the rubble,’ said one dealer. ‘I actually completed three transactions on the way down.’ In fact trading at the buried floor has been so good since 11 September, the bank may sue the New York Fire Dept for digging them out….

And relentlessly on and on it goes through six months of cretinism, cowardice, and pseudo-patriotic bullshit. If you remember, Bill Maher lost his TV show for much less than this.

All hail Iannucci!


Add your own

  • 1. FOARP  |  July 26th, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Iannucci may have needed to wait until now (well, the last year or so) not because it would otherwise be ‘too soon’, but because he had to wait for Tony Blair’s vile spin-doctor and ex-tabloid journalist Alastair Campbell (who Iannucci’s character is based on) to release his even more vile memoirs. Campbell nowadays is trying to re-position himself as a mental-health activist and novelist. Really.

  • 2. Graham C  |  July 26th, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    In fairness, some Americans did produce some admirable black comedy after September 11.

    Unfortunately, they happened to be crypto-Republicans. (

  • 3. slaqdog  |  July 26th, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    well done; that’s a fucking great review of a fucking brilliant film-the man is a-fucking-mazing

  • 4. Tam  |  July 27th, 2009 at 12:23 am

    You’re right, our british political comedy is generally much better, more honest and nastier than yours. But since you’re giving such a lovely review of the film, I’ll be magmanimous and point out that your country can occasionally rise to the occasion, such as the onion’s truly post 9/11 issue which was probably the best artistic response to the event to date and certainly the bravest.

  • 5. SweetLeftFoot  |  July 27th, 2009 at 2:46 am

    As someone who has the misfortune to work in British politics, I can confirm that the types portrayed by Ianucci – especially Jamie, the psychotic super Scottish lieutenant to Malcolm Tucker – are so close to reality it is not funny.

    Everyone in the Anglophone world should watch The Thick Of It, especially the specials. It is just genius. Pure genius.

    On Campbell – man was a great operator and very much a creature of his time.

    Now Derek Draper, there is a grade A cunt.

  • 6. Tam  |  July 27th, 2009 at 4:15 am

    I’d also strongly recommend the just released book ‘My Worst Date ever’ by frequent Morris / Iannucci collaborator Jane Bussman.

    It’s an autobiographical tale of a hollywood showbiz hack who sees a hot UN peace negotiator on the telly and follows him to Uganda to try to get a date and ends up investigating the conflict while she’s there. It’s genuinely laugh out loud funny and reminds me a bit of Gary Brecher in that she’s aware that just because something’s horrible doesn’t mean it can’t also be very funny although unlike Brecher, she’s got a bit more compassion, (which may or may not be a selling point around here) and comes across as someone it’d be fun to have a beer with.

    Here’s a review. The reviewer doesn’t like it much but all of her criticisms will count as reasons to buy the book for most exile readers.

  • 7. Ricky Longnuts  |  July 27th, 2009 at 9:31 am

    I thought it was an OK movie. The first half hour was pretty lame. Tony Soprano is cool. Iannucci’s character’s lines grow tired after about 20 minutes. Whoever thinks he is hilarious is easily amused. Same crap that HBO and Showtime produce. Ever see Entourage?

  • 8. Gaucho  |  July 27th, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    I’m in a fucking motorcade!

  • 9. SweetLeftFoot  |  July 28th, 2009 at 12:49 am

    I suspect many of the nuances may be lost on an American audience, as there is a great deal ‘in joke’ British political stuff going on in In The Loop too.

    For example for mine, ERicky Longnuts, the first half hour is the best as it captures so achingly well the small mindedness and tedium of New Labour life and they way the British press can leap on anything and blow it all out of proportion.

    The types – Toby for example – are so perfectly drawn too.

  • 10. noblackbox  |  July 29th, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Iannucci’s from Glasgow – check out “…and now for viewers in Scotland…”. And many others. Best comic writer to come out of here for years.

  • 11. caroline  |  August 1st, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    you should definitely check out the christmas specials as well. i find the tv show better than the movie.

  • 12. Lex  |  August 4th, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Does anyone know where I can find the whole “Six months that changed a year” article?

  • 13. Monkey  |  August 8th, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Go to youtube to watch the ‘In the Thick of It’
    series. Entire show plus specials are on there and it’s excellent.

    The film was great too.

    Simon Foster: “That’s not supposed to be out there…”
    Malcolm Tucker: “Well, it is out there, it’s out there now, lurking like a big hairy rapist at a coat station. You know, if I could, I’d punch you into paralysis!”


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