In The Loop, the eagerly anticipated big screen extension of political TV comedy The Thick Of It, will open in cinemas on April 17th. Already seen at Sundance, I caught another opportunity for a sneak preview before the general release at a screening last night in London.
In The Loop is basically The Thick of It after a reshuffle; Tom Hollander coming in to play the ministerial role, in for the troubled Chris Langham, Chris Addison’s policy wonk renamed from Olly to Toby, plus additional casting; new faces including ministerial communications director Gina McKee and a Steve Coogan cameo as a disgruntled constituent of the minister’s. Crucially Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker remains constant. In The Loop’s main departure is to go transatlantic, the high-profile casting effect of this being James Gandolfini’s generally unSoprano-like Pentagon man, General Miller. The plot has the US and UK governments pushing towards a war in the Middle East (sound familiar?) and, after a series of off-guard comments, Hollander, playing International Development Minister, Simon Foster, finds himself used as a pawn in the liberal versus neocon tussle over the validation for military action going on in Washington.
My viewing of the film was sandwiched between reading Alastair Campbell’s article on it in The Guardian and watching his review of it with Mark Kermode on BBC2’s The Culture Show. I thought Campbell was a wee bit uncharitable to the film overall but, while, I would generally prefer not review his review of the film (and have Campbell set the agenda? God forbid) he has given me some useful guidelines to manipulate and some views that I share the spirit of, if not the letter.
Campbell’s main problem was that In the Loop was more cynical in its treatment of politics than The Thick of It was and confirmed that creator Armando Iannucci must believe that “all politics was basically crass, all politicians venal, all advisers base.” Because the stakes were higher and Malcolm is frantically pushing the pro-war line (Campbell dismisses any idea that Capaldi’s portrayal is too close to home for him as a person and similarly denies that the plot premise offended him) it’s arguable that the volume is turned up to match the big screen outing, but really it’s more than consistent with the series and thus fair warning was certainly issued before any shock and awe cynicism unleashed. Besides, there was at least one classic Malcolm scene for which Campbell could vouch for the validity of. The scene shows Malcolm with two phones, one clasped to each ear calling McKee and Hollander simultaneously (“How does he do that?” asks McKee half-incredulous, half in awe). Just as John Prescott is immortalised as ‘Two Jags’ and ‘Two Jabs’ then this was Malcolm’s ‘Two Phones’ moment of infamy.
One of Campbell’s other main beefs was the film’s duration: “I felt what worked as a series of half-hour TV satires did not work as a much longer film. The best cartoons are short. This was a very long cartoon.” So feel the quality not the length is what the ex-pornwriter-cum-spin doctor seems to be saying. I agree that there were some longeurs and set ups that were devoid of choice lines to finish them off. The naturalistic format carried over from the Thick of It can be prone to moments of dead air and if you haven’t made a decent joke to hang in that air then it shows more than a duff gag does in a sitcom.
However, there were some delicious scenes where the understatement (not in play for Capaldi’s scenes obviously) was usurped by a super gag; for example General Miller (Gandolfini) and US Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, Karen Clarke, working out the unrealistic troop demands of a war on a child’s Fisher-Price style toy. There are just enough moments like this and great lines (“I hope we don’t have a war, it’s bad enough having the Olympics” Hollander’s character declares) to make In The Loop, with a little help from our American friends, a cut above most British comedy films.
Inevitably Campbell pointed out a number of the political situations in the film lacked authenticity; you can’t just go in to the UN and start swearing, leaked meetings don’t just swell in terms of the numbers of people allowed in, you can’t make what someone said on the radio be reported as such in print. Most of this is a bit literal and highlights that artistic licence is something that a public servant is not always happy to acquiesce too, sometimes with good reason. However, none of these artistic licences greatly marred my viewing, but I did have similar caveats. For example, as much as I found the interaction between Hollander and Addison, as minister and policy advisor, warm and charming I just couldn’t see Hollander as minister material and felt like I was watching a back-bencher on a fact-finding mission. Similarly, the sense of occasion, of jeopardy, was absent for much of the film and only when Malcolm and ‘mini-Malcolm’ Jamie Macdonald (Paul Higgins) were literally re-writing history at the denouement of the film, was my pulse set racing and my sense of intrigue piqued.
Despite these reservations I left the screening feeling entertained and amused and that there were more positives than negatives. I didn’t think it was particularly overlong but I couldn’t help think that for people like Campbell, who thought it was overplayed, the optimum length would probably be about, ooh I dunno, say, 45 minutes. What? Too cynical?