Before he became Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi was probably best known as the foul-mouthed, irascible Malcolm Tucker, Director of Communications for the British Prime Minister on Armando Iannucci’s BBC television series The Thick of It. Having never seen the series, my introduction to Capaldi and Tucker came in 2009 with Iannucci’s In the Loop, a spin-off film that also works flawlessly as a stand-alone comedy. Capaldi spends much of the film in a state of apoplectic rage, snarling obscenities so fabulously devised that they almost resemble metaphysical poetry. Much of the film’s satirical humor derives from the contrasts between British government officials and their counterparts across the pond: Malcolm’s American crony, Linton Barwick (David Rasche), is a war-monger who hides his ruthlessness behind a thick layer of smarm (where Malcolm uses the word “fuck” as its own form of punctuation, Linton says things like “gosh darn it!” and uses dashes to spell out dirty words).
A pair of opportunistic war hawks, the two men are doubled by the laughably ineffectual Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), British Minister of International Development, and Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. Karen and Simon attempt to block Linton as he mounts a case for an Anglo-American invasion of a (never named) Middle Eastern country. But Karen’s efforts, strident as they are, are undone by Simon’s fatal wishy-washiness. Karen’s other would-be pacifist ally, General George Miller (James Gandolfini), also ends up bailing on her at the last minute.
When In the Loop premiered it inspired comparisons to Dr. Strangelove; both films are black comedies in which geopolitical disaster is made to seem both inevitable and curiously attractive. The Mid-East invasion, like the atomic holocaust that provides the orgasmic climax to Dr. Strangelove, looms larger and larger with each attempt to avoid it, in the manner of two pedestrians who collide in spite of every effort to avoid doing so, as if drawn to each other by magnetic force. Foul-mouthed and cynical, Iannucci’s sensibility makes a welcome alternative to the patriotic earnestness of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (an acknowledged inspiration for Iannucci’s HBO series Veep). In the Loop contains no inspiring speeches and no stirring French-horn music. It doesn’t even give us the satisfaction of seeing its “villains” shamed or its “heroes” taking comfort in the knowledge that, even if they haven’t won, they’re at least right. It ends with a sad, queasy-making scene in which the members of the anti-war faction are strong-armed into doctoring the one piece of intel that might have prevented the invasion. Linton and his band of sycophants are given the go-ahead; Karen retreats with her tail between her legs; Simon, having destroyed his career by sheer inaction, stands ruined; Malcolm, whose tenacity ensures that he will always end up on top, will live to curse another day.