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In Armando Iannucci's 'In the Loop,' government policy goes awry

The feature film starring James Gandolfini looks at how easily little mistakes can cause major problems.

July 19, 2009|Mark Olsen

"Unforeseeable." When a low-level minister in the British government uses this innocent word during a radio interview when describing the possibility of an impending war in the Middle East, he inadvertently sets in motion a series of unintended events in London and Washington. "In the Loop," the first feature film directed by British television veteran Armando Iannucci, chronicles the wicked unraveling of diplomatic policy within two governments with a frightening plausibility.

"In the Loop," which opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday and will be available on video on demand starting July 29, builds off the performers and characters from Iannucci's BBC television series "The Thick of It" -- most notably actor Peter Capaldi's brilliantly vulgar turn as the prime minister's communications fixer Malcolm Tucker. Shot in the observational docu-style of "The Office" and told with the breakneck pacing of Billy Wilder's cynical 1961 Cold War comedy "One, Two, Three," the film casts a withering look at how easily little miscues can cause major problems.

"The more I read about the dysfunction inside Washington in the lead up to the Iraq war," Iannucci, 45, said during a recent interview, "and also how the Brits were sort of sucked in, slightly star-struck and used, the more I read about that I thought either you just explode with rage and frustration or you think, this is a farce. And I realized that's the story."

Working with a team of writers -- the screenplay is credited to Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche with additional dialogue by "swearing consultant" Ian Martin -- Iannucci concocted the story that involves an unnamed country in the Middle East and a U.S. president and U.K. prime minister. Rather, "In the Loop" concerns itself with the bumbling exploits of mid-level functionaries, with the British side filled out with Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Chris Addison and Gina McKee.

The American team includes Mimi Kennedy as a frustrated career state department official; Anna Chlumsky and Zach Woods are ambitious young aides; and David Rasche as a boorishly volatile mix of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton. James Gandolfini plays a peace-keeping general who genuinely cares for his troops, meaning he'd rather not see them sent to die in battle.

Every staggeringly ill-conceived and self-serving decision is made to seem eerily credible, from the banal committee names all the way up to tampering with government documents. The film, like "The Thick of It," also features dialogue that runs in grand torrents, with future catch phrases and imminently re-quotable put-downs flying by at a furious pace.

"The trick is to make it sound like the words aren't written, that they're just tumbling out," Iannucci said. "And I generally don't give the actors too much time to think about it. They're more or less learning their lines that day."

The script for "In the Loop" topped out at 240 pages, and Iannucci shot enough to initially assemble a four-hour cut. (The finished film runs a more reasonable 106 minutes). He begins shooting scenes by running through the script as is, but then gives the actors a chance to improvise.

"It's almost like a restoration play," Capaldi explained. "There is a technical complexity to the language that you have to hide. It is a conjuring trick that we do to make it look natural."

While some of the British actors were used to Iannucci's shooting style, none on the American side knew quite what to expect. When the two teams first faced off in a New York rehearsal studio -- the film was shot in Washington, D.C., and London -- there was some need for adjustment.

"He's a lot like a benevolent puppeteer," said Chlumsky, familiar to American audiences from her child-actor turn in "My Girl," of working with Iannucci. "He's not like an evil genius, but kind of. He's always got this little sparkle in his eyes, you know he has an idea and you can't wait for him to let you in on it."

Born in Glasgow to an Italian father and Scottish mother, Iannucci, who now lives in London, began a career in radio before moving to TV. Besides "The Thick of It," Iannucci also previously worked on "I'm Alan Partridge," the show that introduced Steve Coogan's popular dim-bulb television host character.

By leaving out such crucial details as the names of key government leaders, when the events depicted are taking place or where exactly this war may erupt, Iannucci is able to make "In the Loop" more bracingly ambiguous but also more painfully specific to the culture of government decision-making.

"If you see the president or prime minister, they suddenly start representing something else, something big and almost an allegory," Iannucci said. "And I didn't want to go that far. I wanted to go for the ordinariness of it. If you see a bank building or Washington department from the outside you think, 'Everyone in there must know what they're doing.' Then you go inside and it's just you and me again."

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