It's generally considered poor form to start a war. Many would even think it's wrong, in an ethico-moral sense. And yet, with some regularity, people go ahead and start wars.
But to do so in a modern, democratic society requires a degree of consensus, and that leads to the need for either a very good cause or a very good propaganda machine. Armando Iannucci's In the Loop is a fictional exploration of the workings of that machine, and the greasy deceit that keeps its gears from sticking.
Loop is about the run-up to the Iraq War, sort of. Specific details aren't given, but the model is clearly the 2003 invasion/glorious liberation. It begins when British member of Parliament and Cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) does something no government official is supposed to do: He uses words to make a statement, instead of a vague nonstatement. His statement would seem fairly noncommittal to those not involved in the political process: When asked about the possibility of a war, he says war is "unforeseeable."
With an interpretive perversion that would frighten a hardened French post-structuralist, this is taken by some as a sign of resistance to the very idea of war. Thus, Foster becomes a focus for the anti-war forces within the British and U.S. governments. And this leads to him encountering the prime minister's chief of staff, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a man so foul-mouthed that his standard exit line is "fucking bye." Unlike foul-mouthed Americans, though, Tucker is a poet of cursing, using phrases like "lubricated horse cock" with a casual aptness and verbal acuity that would make Oscar Wilde green with envy.
Having been thoroughly and humiliatingly yelled at by Tucker, Foster attempts to do damage control. Unfortunately, he's a bumbling idiot, and his next set of statements makes it seem, to those who like to parse the unparseable, as though he's pro-war. Now endeared to all sides of the debate and a focus of media attention, he starts getting invited to important meetings with real, live Americans, who are like the British, only with more guns. All this leads to Foster being sent to the United States to either stop or start a war, depending on who's shouting at him at the moment.
A series of subplots about sex with Capitol Hill staffers, stolen intel, forged documents and the evil that G-men do then converge around a two-day meeting in Washington, D.C. Anna Chlumsky does a grown-up job playing a staffer who's written a report that weighs in against the war, and Chris Addison plays her slutty British counterpart. James Gandolfini and Mimi Kennedy round out the cast (literally, in Gandolfini's case).
What makes In the Loop exceptional is that it's not only sharply funny; it's also tremendously intelligent. I'd expect no less from writer/director Iannucci, who worked on the two funniest shows of the last millennium, The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge. I'd go so far as to say that Iannucci has made the best Iraq War film yet. To be fair, the competition hasn't been too stiff, so maybe it's best to say that he made an excellent film, and it happens to be a comedy about the run-up to the Iraq War, sort of.
It's been a long time since I've seen a comedy this intelligent. In fact, it seems wrong to refer to what Iannucci does as comedy, because it's as far removed from the fart clouds of Judd Apatow and the Wayans brothers as truth is from the lips of Dick Cheney. It's also got something that most comedies don't have, which is to say it's actually funny and will cause laughter. I mean, laughter in people who are neither high nor 6 years old.
As a result, Iannucci succeeds at doing what so many other Iraq War films failed to do, which is provide a thoughtful commentary on at least some aspect of the conflict. He has no need to dress up what he's doing in the robes of respectfulness and importance, which are just shabby garments designed to fool audiences into respecting something that hasn't earned their respect. Instead of the solemnity and slow, mournful glances of the standard war story—the one that focuses on the poor soldiers who fight these things—Iannucci has produced a mean-spirited but well-targeted and thoughtful look at the people who start wars. It's a smart shift: Soldiers are so revered, and so cleared of guilt by national discourse, that it's hard to put them in a war movie and say anything that's not in the official government script.
But there's no federal edict that says we have to bow our head and vow to "support" chicken-hawk politicians, and if you want to know what makes wars not just bad, but wrong, it's a good idea to look at the people who start them.