In the Loop? Not Really

The movie In the Loop, released last summer in the cinemas and on DVD last week, is the successor to Armando Ianucci’s 2005 television series The Thick of It (the subject of my post last March 13). The series received considerable recognition when initially released, then was cancelled after its costar, Chris Langham, who played a cabinet minister, was convicted and served time for possessing child pornography – no, I’m not making this up.

The television series is the latest instance of the dominant fable of modern British politics, established three decades ago by the classic television series Yes Prime Minister. In this view, politicians and public servants are entirely and narrowly self-interested, and for them the quaint notion of public interest has no meaning, except as a pretext for power seeking.

The Thick of It, spoofing Blairite government, focused on the adversarial relationship between Secretary of State for Social Affairs Hugh Abbott and the prime minister’s Communications Director Malcolm Tucker. Their main concern was how policies, or more often policy gimmicks, would play in the media. Tucker, played by Scots actor Peter Capaldi, was a bespoke bully – expensively suited, spouting an inexhaustible stream of violent and profane invective.

The movie is also squarely within the dominant fable of public sector self-interest, but the context is considerably different. A hapless minister, Simon Foster, makes an unscripted reference to a war in the Middle East being “unforeseeable,” which puts him at odds with evolving United States and British government policy. The reference, of course, is to the Iraq war of 2003, when the Britain Government joined George Bush’s “coalition of the willing.”

Minister Foster is sent to Washington to meet with the Americans, and followed by Malcolm Tucker. The movie then focuses on the mid-ranks of the American bureaucracy: two feuding assistant secretaries of state – one a dove and the other a hawk – and a general. The president, prime minister, and senior cabinet secretaries or ministers on either side are never seen, nor are any senior advisers other than Tucker.

The rest of the plot involves jockeying for influence among these mid-level players. The ultimate decision to go to war is made at a higher level, unseen in the movie. Thus, the movie’s title, “In the Loop,” can be read satirically, because, as my title for this post implies, none of the characters encountered in the movie are in the loop where the real decisions are made.

There was considerable difference of opinion among movie critics regarding the effectiveness of this narrative. A.O. Scott, in The New York Times on July 24, 2009, wrote that “The audience is likely to die laughing. While “In the Loop” is a highly disciplined inquiry into a very serious subject, it is also, line by filthy line, scene by chaotic scene, by far the funniest big-screen satire in recent memory.” He concluded that “the people in whose hands momentous decisions rest are shown – convincingly and in squirming detail – to be duplicitous, vindictive, small-minded, and untrustworthy. But why should they be any different from the rest of us?”

In contrast, Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker on July 27, 2009, wrote that “by the end of the film, you just want to get away from these people” and “for the makers of “In the Loop,” everyone in politics is either a beast or a dithering dolt, there is no basis for public service other than the foaming rage for power, and anyone who dares to dream otherwise – anyone who enjoys

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