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Look who’s talking

Armando Iannucci’s big-screen debut takes aim at politicians’ desecration of language

It is unusual these days for cinema to sneer at television in the way that would sometimes happen in films motivated by snobbery or antagonism (Network, Ginger and Fred, To Die For). Only a fool would suggest now that TV is not the older art form’s equal in gravitas, if not experimentation. The screwball satire In the Loop goes some way towards ratifying that sea change.

The roots of the film are exclusively televisual. It was born out of the abrasive BBC series The Thick of It, an insider’s guide to the machinations of a fictional Labour government. Like that show, it is directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, Britain’s most devilish satirist since his work on Radio 4’s On the Hour and its TV twin, The Day Today, which altered for ever the way audiences felt about facile news reporting (though not, alas, the way makers of facile news programmes felt about audiences). In the Loop retains figures from The Thick of It (including the “swearing consultant” Ian Martin). Confusingly, some actors from the TV show reappear in new roles while others reprise familiar characters.

One of the latter is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the spin doctor generally agreed to be inspired by a recent, transient editor of this journal. Malcolm has an enviable mastery of language, but he deploys this skill entirely in the cause of intimidation. He’s like a superhero using awe-inspiring powers for ill rather than good, nudging school buses off bridges instead of returning them to safety. So fully have viewers of The Thick of It come to relish Malcolm’s deployment of the rancid insult that it can only be a bitter disappointment when he calls an obese American tourist a “fat fuck” during In the Loop. It’s like hearing Glenn Gould playing “Chopsticks”.

Yet this is just a blip, and what Malcolm later promises to do with an underling’s shinbone restores your faith in his misanthropy. It is his stand-off late in the day with another, equally profane monster that provides the unique spectacle of two heavyweights of television meeting, and acquitting themselves beautifully, in the more exposed arena of cinema. James Gandolfini is no longer playing Tony Soprano, but he might as well be – this likeable actor will never shed the baggage from that signature role, despite being cast here as General Miller, a prevaricating honcho with a doubtful combat record. In a cheeky, Sopranos-related joke, he is repeatedly asked if he has ever actually killed anyone.

This new-found union or truce between cinema and television is fascinating to witness, but it is another kind of special relationship that concerns In the Loop. Not the one between Britain and the United States, though that is integral to the film’s story, but the semantic relationship – the correspondence, or lack thereof – between language and its meanings. In the beginning is the word, and the word is “unforeseeable”. This is how Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), minister for international development, describes the prospect of a US-led war in the Middle East during a radio interview. The film’s breakneck plot is set in motion by that single misjudged comment, an error to rank beside the typo that sparks chaos in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Malcolm, raging at Simon’s stupidity, tries to spin the story out of existence. “You may have heard him say ‘unforeseeable’,” as Tucker tells a reporter, “but he didn’t say it.” However, the Americans heard ‘unforeseeable’, too, and now Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), the US assistant secretary for diplomacy, who is also a fierce opponent of the impending war, wants to use Simon to “internationalise the dissent”. What she doesn’t know is that, contrary to his interview remark, Simon is the kind of man who sits on the fence hedging his bets while caught in a cleft stick. “I stand by what I said,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean that what I said won’t change in the future.”

Even after travelling all the way to Washington to attend a war committee meeting, he still can say nothing more resolute than: “I’m certainly hearing both sides.” Language in this film is not a mode of expression so much as an instrument of evasion. It can be magically malleable, too: the word “lobsterising” is a snug fit to describe a person in political hot water, and film titles prove a convenient shorthand in lieu of a put-down: Chad (Zach Woods), a sinisterly ambitious Washington brat, is described as The Shining, while Toby (Chris Addison), Simon’s blathering adviser, is Love Actually.

But the film mostly cocks an amused, appalled ear to the desecration of language in politics. As Simon overwrites memories of his radio gaffe with statements about “the road to peace” and “the mountain of conflict” that go down a storm in the US, you wonder if the loop of the film’s title isn’t in fact a noose. Words become divorced from their meaning, like runaway carriages unhooked from an engine, rattling noisily towards certain destruction. The minutes of a meeting are rewritten, and caveats in a dossier assessing the reasons for war are deleted so that the pros outweigh the cons. (The phrase “sexed-up” is conspicuous by its absence.) It’s a Dr Strangelove touch that the logistics of battle are worked out on a child’s pink, oversized, talking calculator. But our understanding of politics has changed since Kubrick’s film was first released, in 1963, and one of the odd things about In the Loop is that it reassures us in our scepticism and horror, rather than unearthing any submerged truths.

The picture has much to recommend it, though no one could accuse it of being aesthe­tically arresting. It trades in the wobbly camerawork and abrupt editing that would have been called vérité in more innocent times, but Iannucci’s control of image is not always as accomplished as his insights into language. One scene takes place in front of a television showing a documentary about sharks. If such footage is a comment on political life, it feels no less obvious now than when it was used to reflect the amorality of lust in a scene set in the London Aquarium, in Closer (written, incidentally, by Patrick Marber, Iannucci’s old colleague at On the Hour/The Day Today).

But In the Loop does at least start with a subtly telling image – a shot of the roof of No 10, where workmen are going about their business behind a barricade of scaffolding. The suggestion, all the more persuasive for passing unstressed, is that the premiership, and the institution of British politics, is under construction, in need of repair, and as provisional as the language it hijacks to account for itself.

“In the Loop” (15) is in cinemas from 17 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?