not in our stars, but in ourselves
I would heartily recommend that any of you who’ve yet to experience the sheer, sweary brilliance of the television series The Thick of It get yourselves immersed in all four seasons right this very minute. If, however, you find the prospect of jumping right into the (aptly named) thick of British politics a little intimidating, there is thankfully a wonderful primer: In the Loop (2009), written and directed by the same fabulous Armando Ianucci, starring the same fabulous Peter Capaldi, and featuring the same fabulous, lyrical, absolutely poetic swearing that you will come to know and love on The Thick of It. In the Loop stars many of the same actors as its TV predecessor, and so it’s an excellent sample taste. It’s also just plain excellent.
After being blindsided by an interviewer on the radio, Secretary of State for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) says that war is unforeseeable. This, according to the PM’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi), is the wrong line. The U.S. is fixin’ to invade the Middle East on any pretext available, and if someone in Foster’s position says anything that could even remotely be interpreted as supporting or opposing that bellicose intent, it will be a big problem for the British government. Foster has the bad fortune of being assigned a new Special Advisor, Toby Rice (Chris Addison). Toby gets along very well with Foster at first, but Toby doesn’t actually know a thing about how to advise a politician. Before working with Foster in International Development, he worked in the Department of Agriculture. He is ever so slightly out of his depth. Under Toby’s inadequate aegis, Foster’s faux pas spins out of control (at one point, he says that they must get to the , and internally warring factions of American politicos each try to use his stance (whatever it is – no one knows less than Foster) to support or oppose the escalation to war.
Ianucci is an incredibly sharp political satirist, and both In the Loop and The Thick of It often make serious points about governance, or even governmentality (to get Foucauldian on you), amid all the mayhem. Ianucci is also one of the best dialogue writers out there. Observe:
Tucker: [after being told that he’ll have to wait on hold on his phone] I’m not holding any longer! What’s he waiting for, a fucking sex change? NO, YOU RELAX! Get me fucking Brian! If you don’t get me fucking Brian, I’m gonna come over there and I’m gonna lock you in a fucking floatation tank and pump it full of sewage until you fucking drown!
Judy: You should tell me about it, as it’s a scheduled media appearance by a member of this department and therefore it falls well within my purview!
Tucker: Within your “purview”? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!
Tucker: “Climb the mountain of conflict”? You know what you sounded like? You sounded like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews!
Foster: I don’t want to have to read you the riot act here. But I am going to have to read you some extracts from the riot act. Like “Section 1, Paragraph 1: Don’t leave your boss twisting in the wind, then burst in late, smelling like a pissed, seaside donkey.”
Toby: Okay, okay, Simon, I was late for the meeting. I am sorry. But it’s not like I threw up in there, is it?
Foster: No, no, you’re right. I’m being unfair. I should be thanking you for not throwing up. Well done! You’re a star! And you didn’t wet yourself, did you? You’re in the right city. You didn’t say anything overtly racist. You didn’t pull your dick out, start plucking it and shouting, “Willy Banjo!”. No, I’m being really unfair. You’d got so much right … without actually being there for the beginning of one of the most important moments in my career. Thanks! You’re a legend!
I suppose that’s enough of a taste. But trust me: it’s all great.
The British cast, most of whom are also on The Thick of It, are all fantastic – of course. Actors steeped in Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw, and the like are really good at cussing like deranged sailors. On the American side, we have James Gandolfini as a cowardly general, and Anna Chlumsky as an aide who had a fling with Toby when she was an exchange student. Make no mistake: everyone in the cast is great, but the Brits (and the Scots – mustn’t forget to distinguish Capaldi and his countryman Paul Higgins, playing “the crossest man in Scotland,” from all those Tobys and Fosters) are the stars. Ianucci is also behind Veep, which I would like to see – really, I would – but I’ve heard it described as a “diet Coke” version of The Thick of It. Those of you who’ve seen both, please do advise.
Unlike a great many American political films – whether comedies or dramas – In the Loop doesn’t give us a winning side. In fact, pretty much everyone loses. But that’s politics, isn’t it? To borrow from Prez on The Wire: nobody wins; one side just loses more slowly than the other.