I didn’t go for The Thick of It in the first place. I watched the first, three-episode series, the one with Chris Langham. It was billed as Yes Minister for the 21st century, which led me to expect what I wasn’t going to get. I didn’t find it funny, and it took me a long time until I did find it funny.
In The Loop, borrowed on DVD from the local library, got me over that hurdle. It’s a spin-off from the TV series, a 2009 feature film splitting its time between England and America, intended as a satire of the Iraq war. Several of the Thick of It cast appear, together with half a dozen American actors, the biggest of whom – in every sense – being James Gandolfini, Tony Sporano as was.
What I didn’t understand properly, then, was that only Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker and Paul Higgins as Jamie MacDonald were playing ‘themselves’, with other familiar characters, most prominently Chris Addison, playing new characters closely related to their TV selves.
The spine of the story is very simple. Minister for International Development, Simon Foster, played by Tom Hollander as a soft-boiled egg, says something stupid on the radio, bringing down the ire of Tucker (it’s no good, Capaldi is and always will be Malcolm Tucker, forget this nonsense about being Doctor Who). Foster, you can rapidly tell, is born to say something stupid as he stands for nothing except being a career politician.
His new aide, Toby Wright (Addison), undermining his rather more efficient Director of Communications, Judy Molloy (Gina McKee, looking frankly gorgeous), gets Foster into a meeting with American Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) but only as ‘meat’ (i.e., another warm body to make the meeting look good). Foster compounds his error by speaking up when he’s not wanted.
This gets him dragged into affairs in America, where Secretary of State for Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) has created a secret War Committee aiming to invade an unnamed Middle East country. Clark, assisted by a very much more Con than Pro position paper written by her staffer, Lisa Weld (Anna Chlumsky) and General George Miller (Gandolfini) are opposed to War and want Foster to help ‘internationalise dissent’. Malcolm Tucker has other ideas.
There’s more to it than that, a lot more, branching out in multiple directions, but that’s enough. The film is a wind-up toy that whirrs and crashes. It’s embedded with personalities that are all exaggerations, but the thing that worries you is just how big – or in the circumstances little – an exaggeration they are.
Capaldi is just Tucker, his non-stop foul-mouthed invective a masterpiece of scripting given the perfect delivery: Tucker is bile and fury, he doesn’t just run on it, he is it. Foster is all soft edges and no convictions, the only flaw in Hollander’s portrayal being that you wonder how he got as far as he did without a vertebrate spine.
Addison’s Toby gets the biggest comeuppance in the film, in an unemphasised way. He screws Lisa in Washington which blows his relationship with girlfriend Suzy (Olivia Poulet), costing him his home, and is displaced at the Ministry almost as soon as Foster departs. It’s difficult to know whether to characterise him as a slimy creep or a creepy slime but after he tries to to explain away fucking Lisa as a protest against the war, he deserves everything he gets.
Of the other performers, I have just got to pick out Gandolfini. His is the most grounded in reality in the film (apart from McKee as Judy, who is more level-headed and unneurotic than everyone else). You can believe in him as a soldier and a General, more solid on the earth than anyone else, and yet every bit as cutting.
In the Loop was a success on all levels, thugh it’s fair to say it was slightly out of date when it was released. Obama was in the White House by then, and the film’s world is Dubya and Cheney, Republican hawks. Nevertheless, it hits all its marks with stiletto-like precision, and you come out of the film not merely wondering how close to the reality this is but convinced it’s more accurate than any history book or hard-hitting documentary will ever be.
I should also mention that it’s bloody funny too, that’s it’s full-to-bursting with undercurrents, sub-stories and clashing personalities without ever once feeling crammed, the performances are exactly brilliant and, most worrying of all, in these days of pandemics, crisis and potential panic, the feeling that you wish this lot were really in charge instead of the, you should pardon the expression, leaders we actually have.