Friday, January 22, 2016

Politics Is Our Nation's Large Intestine

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Four
Armando Iannucci (director), In The Loop

A low-ranking British Cabinet Minister (Tom Hollander) does the unthinkable one day on live national radio: he tells the truth. He says what he thinks without bothering to consult the official party script. He suddenly finds himself under fire from the Prime Minister’s personal attack dog, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), whose ability for piquant vulgarity and psychological warfare approaches legendary. In politics, careers have crumbled over less.

This pseudo-documentary, with a large ensemble cast and trans-Atlantic scope, serves as an indirect prequel to the BBC satire series The Thick Of It, but is functionally freestanding. It depicts British and American political maneuvering as blatantly Machiavellian, focused on winning without regard for such trivia as facts or collateral damage. It positions power politics as an essentially glamorless enterprise, occupied by small people operating for insignificant gains.

Long before Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi salvaged a foundering acting career by playing The Most Vulgar Man In Britain. By his own admission, he’d gotten trapped in a black hole of repetitive parts, playing politicians with repressed sexual secrets. He attended auditions for The Thick Of It feeling bored, combative, and despondent. Turns out, these were the three qualities show creator Armando Iannucci wanted, and Capaldi became an overnight celebrity.

Buoyed by Capaldi’s performance, this movie thrives on language. This story focuses on how people use language to inform or deceive, to bond together or tear apart, to open or close the nation’s systems to its people. Hollander’s Minister is simple, honest, and winds up road kill. Capaldi’s Tucker lies, bullies, plays double-talk, and wins. Capaldi’s verbal duel with General George Miller (James Gandolfini) is one of the best pieces of legerdemain ever captured on film.

Simon Foster (Hollander), Minister for Overseas Development, has no business getting involved in war planning. The British PM and the American President both want to invade “the Middle East,” but Foster calls war “unforeseeable.” Because his political domain trades in global altruism, he literally cannot foresee something so uncharitable as war. Both sides in the heated international debate begin trying to recruit Foster, and his epic naivete, to their purposes.

Foster’s office includes Judy Molloy (Gina McKee), his Director of Communications, and Toby Wright (Chris Addison), his “Special Advisor.” They represent different pushes on British politics: Judy is scrupulous, knowledgeable, and ethical. She wants to help Foster do his job to his utmost. Toby is theatrical, savvy, and smug. He pushes Foster into high-profile media histrionics, apparently because he thinks Foster’s profile boosts Toby’s own by extension.

On the American side, a deputy Secretary of State makes an alliance with a ranking Pentagon general, both agreeing they lack manpower for a successful war. They have no humanitarian illusions; they don’t want war because they can’t win. But Linton Barwick (David Rasche), the President’s point man, performs remarkable end runs to keep naysayers outside the decision-making circles, and if that means freezing out the military, so be it.

This movie’s Oliver Stone-ish handheld camera work and semi-improvisational dialog give it a look like unfolding news. The fly-on-the-wall tone sometimes makes us feel creepy, as when Malcolm Tucker or Linton Barwick use their bizarre manipulative techniques to eviscerate anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. (Search Malcolm Tucker on YouTube. His ability to turn ordinary vulgarity into squirm-inducing sagas is both hilarious and terrifying.)

Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the most vulgar man in Britain

This movie manages to strip politics of all romance. It does this, in part, by pushing elected officials out of the story: in the entire ensemble, only Simon Foster was elected to anything. Instead, it focuses on appointed functionaries, unanswerable to the people, performing elaborate maneuvers to turn unpopular propositions into inevitable actions. It presents the United Nations as the large intestine of world politics.

Watching lies accumulate, expert liars speak from both sides of their mouths, and promises hang on dog-whistle language, this movie achieves a level of complexity I can only call “poetry.” The dialog bypasses the brain, stabs straight into the gut, and leaves a scar. The comedy arises because we know, instinctively, that the unelected apparatchiks who govern our lives really are this low to the ground.

Co-writer/director Iannucci avoids a heroic or viewer-friendly movie. He intends his audience to feel distressed, even terrified, that our leaders might maneuver thus. His take on the Operation Iraqi Freedom preparations look familiar to anyone who follows news, particularly anyone who follows recent revelations kept secret at the time. This is our politics, folks. Iannucci makes it blackly funny, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

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