I am very fortunate to have an art house theater just a few blocks from my office. Sometimes, it gives me a chance to put my day-to-day policy work into a fresh perspective by watching smart, engaging, and politically-relevant cinema. Good political cinema has the ability to imbue any issue with a humanity that you don't find in think tank white papers. A sense of humanity might seem like the exclusive province of drama -- human compassion, human suffering, human beauty -- but comedy can also bring certain kinds of humanity to an issue -- human infallibility, human pettiness, and human absurdity.
So, last Friday, I strolled on over the the E-Street cinema in downtown DC and caught a showing of In the Loop, a UK-produced Anglo-American political satire. In the Loop spews forth countless barrages of vulgar, sarcastic, cold, and eminently witty dialogue that only the British can raise to the level of high art. Most of these verbal assaults come from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister's Communications Director, played by Peter Capaldi. He directs most of his barbs at Simon Foster, Minister for International Development played by Tom Hollander.
The story gets set in motion when Foster makes a gaffe on a radio show. He stammeringly comments that "war is unforeseeable" when asked about the situation in an anonymous middle-eastern country about which he has no expertise. This statement butts up against the goals of the administration which is gearing up for war, and it's Tucker's job put out Foster's little PR fire. Unfortunately, as Foster tries to save face, he just fans the fire into a full-blown conflagration. But like any good satire, In the Loop, goes beyond embarrassing breaches of message discipline, and skewers a world where the ideal purpose of each sentence is to act as an impenetrable cloak for human frailty.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), a dovish Assistant Secretary of State, is kept in the dark about the Anglo-American march to war. Once she gets a whiff of these plans she teams-up with the Pentagon's Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) to try and expose the faulty intelligence behind the war which her dogged assistant, Liza (Anna Chlumsky), has just written a devastating report on. She is opposed by perhaps the funniest of the American characters, Linton Barwick, played by David Rasche, who has absolutely no sense of reality outside of the pretensions of political office.
Most of the other characters still retain some sense of connectedness to the real world and the impact that their jobs have on it. For Barwick, the absurdities of political smoke and mirrors are to be taken dead seriously. He personally takes offense at seeing I Heart Huckabees on the approved DVD list for American troops and he refers to the UN Meditation Room as a "sacred place" only to continue in the same solemn voice and say "I may not believe it. You may not believe it. But it's a damn useful hypocrisy."
In the Loop also has a glorious surfeit of Office-style awkward moments and mindless utterances which then necessitate hilariously pathetic explanations, followed by scathing insults. (In the Loop is filmed in a cinema-verite style like The Office and the camera pans deliberately to catch the actors' reactions to one another. But the film is not presented as a mockumentary where the actors are aware of the camera. It is also based on the British sitcom The Thick of It and has some of the same cast.)
Young people play a prominent role as well in this satire. Some of the funniest moments are between Liza and Chad (Zach Woods) her junior staff rival at the State Department. (BTW: I thought Anna Chlumsky, who plays Liza, fell off the face of the Earth after she starred in My Girl 2 a good 15 years ago. It's good to have her back.) Chad is a hopeless kiss-up who carries a squash racket in his backpack in hopes of one-day playing a round with Barwick, his boss. There is also the fresh-faced Administration aide who leads Tucker on a White House tour and then proceeds to give Tucker the top-level war briefing he had just flown across the Atlantic for.
Some might be a little put off by the total defeat of idealism and complete lack of heart or heroism in In the Loop. Indeed, many Beltway denizens may find it personally insulting that all of the characters turn out to be cynical, corrupt, egotistical, or incompetent. In fact, for those who see everything through ideological lenses, In the Loop might come across as a conservative, libertarian, or even isolationist film since it demonstrates how government overreaching inevitably leads to failure as long as humans remain corruptible. Then again, the storyline about trumped up intelligence reports and dissenting voices being silenced in the run-up to war is a familiar one. And amid the main characters' grand plans of foreign conquest, a local matter manages to inject itself -- a small-town constituent of Foster's, played by Steve Coogan, needs a municipal wall fixed before it falls down on his property -- reminding the high-powered international elites that maybe they should get back to "bread and butter" domestic issues.
Nevertheless, this is still a movie that everyone in DC should see since it will give them a much needed opportunity to laugh at themselves. It will remind politicos that they all need to lighten up, get over their egos, and not take themselves too seriously because, after all, they're only human.