Though it has had an excellent run as the defining model for political satire in the movies, it's time to name a successor to Dr. Strangelove.
Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy—about the escalation of the cold war through the death of language, reason, and humanity—was the birth of modern irony as a way of understanding, or at least mocking, power in films. Forty-five years on, Strangelove is both institutionalized, which is a problem for comedy, and weirdly quaint, which is a danger with topical satire. It remains prescient, beautiful to look at, and even funny. But it's the kind of funny that someone a few seats away is always looking over to make sure you're laughing at. It was essential, even revolutionary in its time, but the doctor needs a scion.
I hereby nominate In the Loop, a relentlessly funny, slightly queasy film by godlike British comedy genius Armando Iannucci, about which there is nothing quaint. Though Iannucci unmasks the hubris and misdirection that led to the war in Iraq, his satirical target runs much deeper.
The unmasking happens in a hurry. In the first five minutes, Malcolm Tucker, the British prime minister's director of communications, hatchet man, and all- purpose Machiavellian fixer (Peter Capaldi, in a performance too good for Oscars; new awards should be created to honor it), hears a junior MP stumblingly describe a U.S. military intervention in the Middle East as "unforeseeable." Not on message.
Tucker shoots out of Number 10 Downing Street on a mission of containment and intimidation. While walking to the minister's office, cell phone drawn like a six-gun, he corrects a journalist's impressions about the quote ("you may have heard him say that, but he did not say that and that is a fact"), threatening to out him as an adulterer if he doesn't comply.
Moments later, he's intimidating advisers and demoralizing the minister himself, who is forbidden from making any further media appearances until he learns to "toe the fucking line."
This is the first scene. It lasts about 10 minutes and sets up the entire dynamic and tempo of the film: The government controls all discourse in an effort to advance its preset agenda; its ministers are clownish and hopeless; their advisers are arrogant sycophants, whose concern for their bosses' jobs have only to do with fear for their own; and the citizens they serve are, on a good day, afterthoughts.
Director of communications is the least ironic title in history. Tucker prompts the cast of dimwit politicos with their lines for the press, makes sure the press stays on message, and generally stage-manages the whole government as if it were a piece of theater. Which it obviously is. A farce, as it turns out.
This 10-minute scene also contains approximately 297 violent laughs that I won't spoil by repeating. Many of the jokes aren't actually jokes, simply expressions of linguistic rage formed by Tucker's hilariously versatile Scottish dialect, which rests gently, but explodes into lashing fury ("If you don't put me through to him, I'm gonna come down there and lock you in a flotation tank and pump it full of sewage till you drown!") when met with any resistance.
Iannucci's mostly handheld camera creates both a sense of heightened documentary realism and the ability to jump through scenes in jagged shorthand, which allows the filmmaker to show just the funny bits of every exchange, and never allows the elaborate satirical context to feel cumbersome or overstuffed. Iraq is never mentioned by name, but it's obvious right away what we're watching.
Nor is the film overly concerned with belaboring the true natures of the powerful figures it sets hurtling on the course to war. In the Loop takes the venality, stupidity, vainglory, and ineffectiveness of nearly everyone concerned (including the Americans who show up in the second scene, which has about 326 additional laughs) utterly for granted. Their uselessness is the given. The comedy, and the agony, comes from watching it begin to dawn on them. It's an absurdist view, but not a detached one. A film like this could only be made by someone who is enraged.
Iannucci isn't advancing an argument for a superior ideology the way inferior political satires like War, Inc. or Bob Roberts or Bowling for Columbine did. Instead, the film seems to argue that ideology itself is utterly beside the point in a critique of contemporary government. For the powerful, the only doctrine that has any meaning at all is the one that preserves the existing power structure.
For the filmmaker, the most effective idea is the funniest. Put them together and you have a comedy that's both smart and funny. And pissed (in the American sense). Often all at once. It's nice to see a film by someone with some fight left in him. This is, after all, the war room.