24 September, 2009

Make love, not war

So here's the thing.

I once watched an episode of the British comedy series The Thick Of It. I wasn't too impressed with it, and never bothered watching any more episodes. But in the years since I saw that episode, I've heard so many people talk about how great the show was that I began to wonder whether I was wrong in my assessment. So, with the festival showing the film version of the series, called In The Loop (see the trailer here), I decided to give it another look.

Upon reflection, I wonder whether my problem was that I came to the TV series with wrong expectations. I first watched the show because I'd heard it compared to the classic TV comedy series Yes, Minister, a show I've loved since I first saw it at the age of 11. One of the things I really enjoyed about that show was the dialogue, the masterful way the writers played with the English language to obfuscate the message being communicated. Here's an example line of dialogue, in which Sir Humphrey confesses to having made a mistake:

"The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume, but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun."

How can you not love any show that has a character delivering dialogue like that. There's a beauty to that sentence, there's no point where the line is actually difficult to understand, it's just that the sentence goes on and on, building up until the listener gets lost in a torrent of words. Wonderful.

In The Loop. like its parent show, also makes distinctive use of dialogue. Here's a sample line of dialogue from the film, coming after someone says that something falls within their "purview".

"Where do you think you are, some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a Government department, not some 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!"

And here, you see, I think we have the answer to the question of why, exactly, I initially disliked The Thick Of It. It's not that I'm offended by swearing in movies and television, I'm not. But when you sit down to watch something expecting to see Sir Humphrey Appleby, you're not actually prepared for Malcolm Tucker. Coming to the film with more realistic expectations, I realised that, as a cutting political satire, comparisons to the earlier classic series really are deserved.

The film is basically a comedy about how the Iraq invasion happened. Not explicitly - it's a fictional film with fictional characters, and the name of the country being invaded is never once mentioned - but despite being so non-specific, it's difficult to not interpret as an exploration of how a situation like the Iraq war would have arisen. The British Minister for International Development, Simon Foster, is against the war, but accidentally breaks the Government's line of remaining neutral on the prospect of the invasion when he describes the war as being "unforeseeable". An attempt to backtrack on this entirely non-neutral word choice results in another quote being seen as a pro-war statement. It's not long before Simon and his assistant Toby find themselves in the United States, being pushed and pulled to support or oppose the war. And meanwhile, on both sides of the Atlantic, political machinations move both countries steadily towards war. The film culminates at the United Nations, where votes to authorise the invasion are held based on the evidence of dubious intelligence provided by people with silly codenames, and no-one seems to quite know how to stop the war from happening. If they even want to.

The acting in the film is uniformly great. Most of the core UK characters are filled by the stars of the TV series (although only a couple of people are actually playing their TV character), and they all give very good performances. Among the UK cast, Tom Hollander is the main actor that's new to this world, and he manages to make Simon Foster pathetic, indecisive, and impotent, all without losing audience sympathy.

I initially found Peter Capaldi's performance as Malcolm Tucker a bit disorienting, as just that week I had watched him playing a weak-willed bureaucrat in the Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries, and it was somewhat startling to be confronted by him as a force of nature. As in the TV series (which I have since sought out and watched in its entirety), Malcolm Tucker is just a supporting character, but his appearances are so completely overwhelming that he feels everpresent. But where the series portrays Tucker almost as the boogyman, a figure whose appearances completely overwhelm and terrify the other characters, the film does a nice job in establishing his character, and then moving him to the States where his reign of terror is completely stymied. In the UK, his force comes not just from the overpowering fire of his profane verbal attacks, but the fact that he has actual power as basically the voice of the PM. But in the US, he's a nobody, tolerated as the PM's representative, but ultimately a somewhat irrelevant creature completely devoid of power to back up his bluster. And it's extremely entertaining to watch him try to get control of a situation where he is completely powerless.

But it's the American cast that really make the film sing. David Rasche has created a nice career in recent years of being the best part of anything he works in, and as the person responsibe for spearheading the move to war, he gives us an entertaining performance as a character that's almost the gung-ho Sledge Hammer reinvented as a politician. James Gandolfini clearly relished a the script that delivers his anti-war general many of the film's best one-liners. (Only Capaldi gets better dialogue.) And it's a surprise to see that My Girl's Anna Chlumsky has grown to be a talented comedic actress. (Her interactions with her mortal enemy, an obnoxious and awkward aide called Chad, were a particular highlight.)

Given that it was probably the language that put me off the original show, it was surprising to realise that it is a genuine love of the use of language that ties both Yes, Minister and In The Loop together. In The Loop may not have Yes, Minister's thesaurus-based dialogue (unless you can get a profanity thesaurus), but nevertheless they both take real delight in exploring the use of language, the implications of language, and the way it can be used to obscure the truth. After all, the entire plot of In The Loop is set off by the use of a single word, "unforeseeable", there are whole scenes that explore the implications of that one word, meaningless non-committal phrases start appearing on jingoistic bumper stickers, and the war-preparation committee is deliberately disguised by the blandest name imaginable, The Future Planning Committee. Indeed, Malcolm Tucker may be referred to as the PM's "enforcer", but basically he's a spin doctor - and spin is essentially a way of disguising unpalatable facts through the most positive use of language possible. And then there's just the general dialogue, which may be profane and offensive, but is also witty and hilarious and memorable and quotable.

But the film also has a lot to say about the increasing role of ideology in shaping the modern political sphere. Those who are behind the war push have clearly decided that the attack is going to happen, and so their focus is not on examining the case for going to war, but just how to get approval for the war while trying to minimise the involvement of those that may oppose the conflict. In one of the film's many plot threads, a lowly aide prepares a paper arguing that the war is not justified, which ends up being the focus of political attention. ("It's like a Harry Potter book, if Harry Potter made people really, really angry.") Over the course of the film, we follow the paper as it is read, edited, leaked, and ultimately even manipulated to provide the very evidence and justification for the war it's arguing against. And yet at no point does anyone really even examine the argument the paper makes, all because ideology has already fixed their position on the conflict.

It's difficult to know what else to say. It's a sharp satire of behind-the-scenes international politics, while remaining accessible to an audience that may not be aware of political intricacies and nuances. It's filled with a great cast of characters, all of whom are to some degree self-serving and behave appallingly, but are great fun to watch. It's fast, witty, and an utterly enjoyable experience.

As I said, since seeing the film, I've seen the complete run of The Thick Of It. And I'm glad to discover how wrong I was about the TV series, it's a brilliant show, I strongly recommend it, and I'm excited to learn that they're making another series, but I definitely prefer the film. There's something essentially insular and small-scale about the series, with people trying to hide from the type of political storms that are forgotten a week later. But In The Loop is a much bigger film, examining complicated and long-lasting international issues, and it's made more interesting and urgent for the importance of the issues at the core of the film. Which is not to say the film is about "issues" - that's just incidental to the film's main focus, which is on being as entertainingly and exhaustingly funny as possible. And it succeeds admirably, proving to be one of the best comedies of the year.

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