I once got to drink wine with a junior civil servant and ask a million questions about government. The thing about ministers, I was told, is that they don’t succeed on their intellect or their analytical ability (anyway, there’s more information sloshing around than any individual could handle – that’s what the researchers are there for). The skill that makes a ministerial career is memory: having the right figures ready to pull out at the dispatch box, and the right lines in place when an awkward question comes up.
The plot of In The Loop (the feature film adaptation of sweary satirical sitcom The Thick Of It) launches from a minister who doesn’t know what to say. Hapless Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) of the Department For International Development is a simple man caught between vanity and careerism, making the occasional desperate clutch at doing the right thing. After he tells an interviewer that “war is unforseeable”, he’s obviously on the long slide out of the cabinet. Oblivious to the cool competence of Gina McKee’s Judy Malloy (his department’s head of communications), witlessly reliant on Chris Addison’s Toby Wright (new to the department and ineptly ambitious), and on the wrong side of Malcolm Tucker’s fury (Peter Capaldi, of course, whippet-slim and whipsmart with the magnificently obscene dialogue), the only issue is whether the hawks or the doves can get the most use out of him on the way down.
If you’ve had one eye open anytime in the last six years, you’ll know exactly how the story is going to play out – and if you’ve paid any attention to British sitcoms at any stage in their history, you’ll know that they’ve got dubious form when it comes to big-screen spin-offs. So, what makes In The Loop work? For one thing, it’s not the narrative that grips but the detail – the agonising complexities of compromise, self-interest and error that cause things to happen, rather than the things that happen themselves. This feels like the way politics probably really does happen, and the terrifying thing is that politics is screwed not because of some elite conspiracy, but because the people doing it are as prone to stupidity and self-preservation as everyone else.
It doesn’t suffer the normal pains of transition from TV to movie because it cleverly holds onto its style while expanding its scope. Shot in the handheld DV style of the series, but making expansive use of outside scenes and locations in DC and New York, In The Loop translates its TV ancestor into cinematic terms brilliantly by not clinging too tightly to the original material. Cast of the TV show appear in different-but-similar roles – a ploy that could have been confusing but actually works fine, because the characters are mostly functions of the jobs they do. It doesn’t really matter that Chris Addison’s performance as Olly Reeder is nearly identical to his performance as Toby Wright – the two characters have nearly identical roles, so it makes sense that they’d look the same, talk the same, and have doppelganger girlfriends.
Of the Americans, James Gandolfini as a Pentagon general doing everything he can to avert war is easily the standout, and a satisfyingly fierce opponent to Tucker. In fact, Tucker finds Washington a whole lot tougher to roll over that Whitehall. Seen from high over DC running frantically to get to a meeting, looks unexpectedly small and vulnerable.
And while the film is viciously funny, it’s also got a note of the tragic: the President and the Prime Minister, the most powerful characters in the film, are godlike in their absence, directing events towards a predetermined conclusion which makes all the organs of diplomacy redundant. “We have all the facts we need”, says a war-hungry American minister as he flicks away an analysis of the potential invasion’s costs: “In the kingdom of truth, the man with one fact is king.” It’s that funny, and (for people who are quite keen on truth) that tragic, all the way through.