Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Thrown For A Loop By Satirical Genius

There are a number of reasons why Armando Iannucci's feature debut, In The Loop, is automatically one of the best movies to be released this year, at least from this humble blogger's perspective, which is a relief after I went on about it in these two posts. However, there is one super-special personal reason, which I'll get to in a bit. First, a list of things to love about this magnificent movie...

1. It was free.

Yes, I got free tickets from a Sunday Times promotion, and got to see it at the lovely Ritzy in unlovely Brixton. The assembled upper-middle-class white people, perhaps fans of India Knight’s column, or that incredibly ugly typeset, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the movie, and we lower-middle-class white people did too. It was all very congenial, even with the C-word flying out of the screen with alarming regularity.

2. The easy transition to the big screen.

I'm sure the cinéma vérité style of The Thick Of It has its detractors, but whatever your feelings about it, it does make translating the show to a bigger screen fairly easy. No matter how modish the style has become, it's kinetic enough to keep the eye distracted from a film that is basically a bunch of people talking to each other a lot. The swift pace and aggressive performances keep the pace up for almost the entire movie.

Even so, Iannucci has fun with the contrasts between cramped and grey Britain, and the golden glows and grandeur of Washington. Even though the characters are stuck in depressing buildings, you still get the sense that Washington is a far more glamourous place than Whitehall. On top of that is one of the funniest visuals of the year; repeated shots of Malcolm Tucker scuttling around Washington, a sheaf of papers in his hand and mobile phone stuck to his ear as he bellows and shrieks torrents of foul abuse at everyone.

That said, would it pass the Billson test? It’s drab, frenetic, composed with what looks like slap-dash haste (though was probably worked out with great care), and certainly seems more interested in the spoken word than the visual aspect, but this is what the show is. Besides, even if it’s not The Fountain in terms of visual splendour, the script by Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Ian Martin is a marvellously complex thing, easily as tight and satisfying as their script for the recent specials (finally available on DVD, staggering-genius fans!). What looks like an unconnected series of sweary set-pieces gels in the final act with great precision. Billson’s criticism of British screenwriters is as angry as her comments about directors, and just as accurate:

A lot of British film-makers assume that screenplay equals dialogue, and because the Brits still haven't caught on to William Goldman's maxim that "Screenplay is structure", we get endless exposition and a plodding procession of scenes unfurling like stage plays. Scene begins, there's some dialogue, scene ends, next scene begins, more dialogue and so on. Lawks-a-mercy, we might as well be watching a Restoration drama at the Old Vic.

In The Loop might feature more dialogue than a dozen movies put together, but at least there is plot there. I once attended a screenwriting discussion headed by a very nice lady from the BBC, who said that drama spec-scripts would usually only attract attention if the plotting was tight. With comedy, however, scripts could be poorly plotted but would be considered a success if they were at least funny, which most comedy scripts sent to the Beeb were not.

In The Loop is that wonderful rarity; a movie that has a funny line almost every thirty seconds, but also works like a narrative machine from beginning to end and, as a bonus, features some of the most fascinating and believable characters of recent times. I’m not saying Iannucci didn’t do a great job as director, because I think he did. What he should be most proud of, though, is that remarkable script. When the film finished I said to Canyon that it was this year’s In Bruges. I can think of no higher praise.

3. The peculiar anti-continuity continuity.

Though I thought it might be baffling to have Chris Addison return as a different character than he played in The Thick Of It, he is pretty much the same arrogant-yet-cowardly loser as before, just with a new name. At first this choice was mystifying, but as In The Loop deals with a different department within the government, new characters are necessary if we're not to waste half of the film explaining why these people have switched jobs, especially when it is going to be seen by many more people who saw the show (at least, I hope so). Having Addison play Toby and not Ollie is, thankfully, no big deal.

He's not the only one. Several cast-members appear as new characters who share similarities and narrative links with their previous incarnations, most notably Olivia Poulet as Toby's girlfriend (she played Ollie's Tory girlfriend in The Thick Of It), Lucinda Raikes as a reporter (though we don't find out if she's working for the Daily Mail as with the parent series), Alex McQueen as an ambassador with the same social ineptitude as his Thick Of It character Julius Nicholson. It's not all the same. James Smith gets a promotion, Joanna Scanlan (as seen below) gets a demotion, and Will Smith (no, not that one...) gets a tiny role that nicely pays off his parallel universe character arc from the recent specials.

Only two characters remain the same: Peter Capaldi as Tucker, and Paul Higgins as Jamie, who is only in the movie for a few minutes but tears his scenes apart with even more feral nastiness than in the original series. His arrival late in the movie was greeted with a murmur of upper middle-class approval from the Sunday Times readers in the audience. There was no response from the audience when a familiar voice announced the start of a conference about fifteen minutes into the film. I could very well be mistaken, but the voice (belonging to an unseen man) sounded a lot like a former Thick Of It cast-member who hasn’t been in the show since before the specials, for very well-publicised reasons. IMDb, not surprisingly, has nothing to say on the matter.

4. The amazing cast.

Having everyone come back for this movie, even in an altered state, is a pure joy. By now they know how to do this hectic, profane comedy in their sleep, and it's a relief to find that the two British additions to the cast, Gina McKee and Tom Hollander, are both wonderful. This is not exactly news, of course. McKee is so good that when it seems like she's dropped out of the movie about twenty minutes in I was gutted (she comes back later, thankfully). Hollander is remarkable as the hapless Simon Foster, his craven vacillating providing much of the comedy and plot movement. Even though I adore Malcolm Tucker, I had feared the movie would overuse him, thus denting his impact. Luckily the rest of the characters are inept and venal enough to become just as fascinating as him.

Some criticism (that I really don’t agree with) has been thrown at the movie for moving the action to America (more on the colossal shitbag who said that below). Expanding the scope of the Thickniverse was a clever move from a financial point of view (hello American viewers who will not know what hit them), as well as in terms of narrative and satirical possibility, but it also meant a new set of actors who have not worked under these conditions before. While the UK actors gambol over their lines with precision borne of years spent working on this show, James Gandolfini and his fellow Americans speak much slower. It takes a while to adjust to the change in pace in America, though this is not a criticism of them. Everyone excels, especially Mimi Kennedy as Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke, Anna Chlumsky as naive intern Liza Weld, and the great David Rasche as the menacing Linton Barwick, who bangs heads with Malcolm Tucker a couple of times.

Gandolfini is also terrific, playing straight comedy in a way he’s not had a chance to do before. One of the highlights of the movie is the showdown with Malcolm, one of the few moments in the film where the humour pauses. I don’t remember specifics, but I do know I held my breath throughout.

5. Comedy heritage.

This superb cast, most of whom have worked with Iannucci before, either on The Thick Of It or earlier works, reminded me of the repertory of performers that would appear regularly in the films of Preston Sturges, whose hyper-modern comedies still feel fresh even today. While In The Loop has been compared to Yes, Minister (obviously) and old Ealing comedies (I'm not 100% sure about that, but I'll go along with it), I'd say Iannucci has been influenced as much by Sturges as anything else.

The frenetic pace, the irreverence, the seriousness of purpose (for example, Sullivan's Travels and Hail The Conquering Hero are pointed comments on social issues as much as they are kooky knockabout fun), and the beautifully wrought plot and characters, are all reminiscent of Sturges' films. Considering how that great director's work is not as well known in the UK as it should be (at least as far as I can see), it's strange to see someone dabble in the same waters.

6. There's a lot more where this came from.

Apparently a lot more footage was shot than was used. Though the final product is structured so well that a director's cut would probably not work anywhere near as well, we can hope for a lot of deleted scenes in the DVD. Until then, here are some scenes with Jamie being a total scumbag. Navigate within the window for more scenes (the first two are in the movie, but the movie discussion and confrontation with Gina McKee are not).

7. Topicality.

It’s obvious from a look at any synopsis that Iannucci and co. were inspired by the Dodgy Dossier that got us into the Iraq War, but I was unprepared for the level of extra detail he would add. With Tucker standing in for Alastair Campbell, Simon Foster is a movie version of Clare Short, vacillating over whether or not to resign in protest over the push to war. One of the funniest moments in the film comes when Foster convinces himself it would be braver to stay on than it would be to resign, but the depressing thing is that that’s almost a direct transcription of Short’s thinking, as explained far down in this fascinating article by Iannucci about the making of the film. This being a comedy, there is, sadly, no Robin Cook analogue.

The joke that got the biggest roar of approval, though, has to be what must have seemed, at the time, to be a throwaway joke about expenses. Even more surprising, after this week's controversy about Damian McBride and the smear-mail cregarding David Cameron , shouty spin-doctors seem even more topical. It goes to show how well the filmmakers understand the thinking of our leaders. Speaking of which...

8. Every time Malcolm Tucker swears, Alastair Campbell winces.

In polite conversation I make no secret of the fact that I think Alastair Campbell is primarily responsible for one of the darkest moments in recent British history, namely the campaign of dishonest bullying aimed at the BBC in order to dodge some awkward questions about the march to war, a series of events catalysed by the dodgy dossier used to such wonderful satirical effect by Iannucci and co. During that period, his embarrassingly brazen avoidance of responsibility, desperately squirming out of danger by setting the easily controlled British press after the BBC, was sickening to watch, especially when the press not only jumped into line like a brainwashed army, but would occasionally comment on how effectively they had been manipulated, as if to pay tribute to Campbell's Macchiavellian genius.

For fuck's sake, all he did was act like a kid trying to escape a bollocking for firing a spitball at teacher by pointing out that Jenkins has a nuddy mag in his desk and is far more deserving of the birch than he is, the difference here being that any Etonian headmaster would ignore such a desperate attempt at diversion and then wallop the living shit out of the kid, instead of letting him off and expelling poor Jenkins who was just holding that copy of Razzle for James "Portly" Fortesque, honest sir!

As if Campbell's despicable and immoral face-saving exercise wasn't bad enough - an exercise which, let's not forget, lead to the death of a renowned scientist and complicated all investigation into the march to war, dragging the conflict out at the cost of many more lives - the BBC has since kept bringing the sociopath back, over and over again, to host shows and participate in interviews and generally act like it's no hard feelings. Well fuck that, there are fucking diamond-hard feelings, and I'll bet there are plenty within the BBC too. His actions have damaged investigative journalism and engaged enquiry in England more than any logistical or financial shortfalls listed in Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, and it's doubtful we'll ever see a restoration of backbone in the fourth estate. Of course that could just be me letting pessimism overtake me, but that's an easy thing to do post-Hutton enquiry. The whole sorry experience damaged my perception of politics and journalism to such an extent that I cannot see my faith ever being restored, especially now Paul Foot has sadly left us.

Of course, it's blatantly obvious that Malcolm Tucker is based on Alastair Campbell. Only an idiot could deny it. An evil idiot at that. Yes, the man himself was invited to see it with "Zoot Suit" Kermode, and was bored by the film. I also like how he criticised Iannucci for not understanding how certain things worked in politics.

Of course, politicians and advisers have their own ambitions. But they have more than that. Some of the scenarios - like a secret meeting being overwhelmed by attendees because its existence has been announced on TV; or Tucker being able to keep out of the papers something a minister said on radio; or the minister being confined to the back row of a meeting while officials take centre stage - would have benefited from advice from someone who has been inside a government loop or two.

What advice? Like this? [From the Iannucci article I'd linked to above]

I'd established contact with a political blogger out in DC who fixed me up with US State Department staffers and Senate workers and Pentagon officials and even a CIA guy, who could brief me on the ins and outs of Washington life. At least two people told me that Condoleezza Rice was a bit rubbish. She got rather star-struck in Washington and never really stood up to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Both of the guys I met said: "And, as a result, people got killed." The CIA guy added: "And that's what really pisses me off!" and as he said it, for the first time in our meeting, he looked rather frightening. He had the look of a man who knows how to empty someone else's bowels out by simply touching a vein.

That sounds like he knew what he was doing, Mr. Campbell. Yes, his hilariously defensive comment piece was the thing that inspired me to write this post (well, that and the sheer awesomeness of the movie) but pretty much everything that I wanted to say about Campbell's snippy response to the movie is summed up in this comment piece by George Pitcher.

Within 24 hours, Campbell had demonstrated exactly why the yobbish In The Loop character, Malcolm Tucker, is so obviously based on him. Humourlessly beat up on a critical journo, then affect nonchalance at your own grim mirror-image the next day. The Guardian's Digested Read feature on Campbell's column today could read: "Honestly, I couldn't care less. Here's 800 words about how I couldn't care less."

Amateur psychologist as Campbell is, he must have turned his hobby on himself (which is after all his favourite subject) in today's column. Is it not the reaction of the bullying child in the playground that everyone eventually turns on, pointing and laughing at him, so he has to react with "Bor-ring! Can't you see I don't care?"

Brilliant. I also like Iannucci's response to the criticism:

We should have posters done. They would say: 'A disappointment, Alastair Campbell'.

Of course Campbell cares, though his faux-apathy might really have been triggered because Tucker is shown, at times, to lose track of the multiple deceptions he has created. I have a suspicion that the mad dashing, which often looks panicked, is as far from Campbell's image of himself as you can get. Nevertheless, don't forget that this is the man who raced across London and barged into a Four News broadcast to ladle further heaps of smelly lie-manure all over the acquiescent and terrified BBC. Of course, I'm making a huge assumption that Campbell is concerned with his image, but considering how vanilla his Wikipedia page is, I'm beginning to wonder if he has a hobby. Surely no one else is going to clean it up whenever it gets altered to discuss anything other than his unpleasant-sounding battle with depression, or his support for Leukaemia Research.

Or maybe the world has moved on now, and that page has remained untouched and information-free for years now. How soon we forget. At least we still have Tucker, and the thought of Campbell watching and trying to figure out how to spin the fact that he has been part of the creation of a monster, a hilarious character who nevertheless represents everything that is wrong with the world today, an amoral crocodile-man wrecking the lives of all around him just to accomplish whatever the goal is for that day. In The Loop is a magnificent achievement on a number of levels, but I take special pleasure in the mental image of that man, the one who installed Cynicism 2.0 in my soul, sitting in a screening room with a bequiffed William Friedkin fan, fidgeting in his seat as his personality is filleted with such precision. Thank you, Peter Capaldi, and thank you Iannucci and co. You completed me, somehow.


Nancy said...

RuthI recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


sleepy-bird said...

Is depression the British equivalent of Jesus? I can't help but notice that both Alistair Campbell and Derek Draper tried to redeem themselves by telling everyone how TOTES DEPRESSED they were, and writing very-probably-shitty books about mental issues.