Armando Iannucci in profile

As his first feature film appears, just how seriously should we be taking Britain's pre-eminent satirist?
April 25, 2009

An American president decides to invade a Middle Eastern country for reasons that are unclear. A neo-con assistant secretary of state begins covertly planning for war whilst publicly denying that a decision to go to war has been taken. The British prime minister offers the American president his full support and his director of communications distorts intelligence reports in order to justify the war. Weak cabinet ministers nervously prevaricate but ultimately fall into line while mandarins fail to stand up to their political bosses. The dodgy intelligence, based on a single, dubious source, is used to persuade the United Nations Security Council and the British public that it is a just war. Everyone feels manipulated. But the war goes ahead anyway.

That is the gist of In the Loop, Armando Iannucci's first feature film, which went down well with American critics when it was shown at Sundance in January and is released in the UK on April 17. It sounds like a thinly veiled version of the build-up to the Iraq war—which is exactly what it was when Iannucci wrote it last year. But, Iannucci tells me when I meet him in his office at the top of BBC Television Centre, he is now worried that a similarly disastrous scenario might be played out under an Obama administration. "You could sort of imagine if the troop surge in Afghanistan and Pakistan went a bit wrong, and if Hillary Clinton was being a bit bolshy, you know, what might happen," he says.

In the Loop is essentially the movie version of The Thick of It, the award-winning BBC comedy series about twenty-first century Whitehall—itself an updated version of the classic television satire, Yes Minister. Peter Capaldi returns as Malcolm Tucker, the hard-swearing Scottish version of Alistair Campbell who terrorises government ministers and civil servants on behalf of the invisible PM. Special adviser Ollie becomes Toby, but, played by Chris Addison again, is essentially the same character. Tom Hollander is Simon Foster, the bumbling minister at the centre of the farce this time, although he is not quite as convincing as Chris Langham was in The Thick of It.

This time, however, there is also an American sub-plot, centred around the intrigues between hawks and doves at the State Department. James Gandolfini is great as General Miller of the 101st Airborne Division, who opposes the war but ultimately does as he is told by his commander-in-chief. The character is apparently a mixture of Generals Powell and Petraeus, with a bit of Tony Soprano thrown in (he even uses Soprano's catchphrase: "What da fuck?").

It's all very funny, although it has to be said that many of the laughs derive simply from the inventiveness and ferocity of the put-downs thrown around by Tucker and Miller (the climactic scene of the movie is the verbal showdown between the two of them at a bar at the United Nations, for which the Royal Festival Hall doubled). But In the Loop also has a darker edge than The Thick of It: it is, after all, about a war. Although the film's publicity insists that it is "not about specific, real events", it corresponds too closely on the real events leading up to the Iraq war for that to be believable: "Ice Man", the dubious intelligence source, for example, is obviously a cipher for "Curveball", the Iraqi exile on whose fabricated claims much of the evidence presented by the United States about Iraqi biological weapons was based. All of which raises the question: how seriously are we supposed to take it?

It's a question on which it's hard to pin down Iannucci. He says that In the Loop grew out of his anger and frustration about the Iraq war, but at the same time he insists he just wanted to make "a funny film." So he's not trying to make a statement about the war at all? "No, because I've found in making The Thick of It and In the Loop that my views develop anyway," he says. He was, however, aiming for a certain kind of realism. "I want people to know that we've spent a lot of time trying to get the feel for the atmosphere right, so that people can go away thinking, 'That's what it's like', even though it's absurd and farcical in terms of the plot," he says. "I want people to feel that that world is accurate."

To achieve that accuracy, Iannucci read books about the build-up to the war—Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack and former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's memoir, among others—and then went to Washington and talked to former State Department staffers, including some who had worked for John Bolton, apparently the model for the neo-con assistant secretary of state in In the Loop. "The more I examined the background to the lead-up to Iraq, the more I just found it shocking, but also funny," he says. "I thought the way into this is just to follow what happened in those circumstances, how people behave, little sins of omission they perpetrate, and hopefully in a funny way show how something big and immense can happen as a product of lots of ordinary people not quite going, 'Um, is this right?'"

In the Loop seems to be in part an expression of Iannucci's disillusionment with Tony Blair, about whom he was initially enthusiastic. Iannucci says he was "excited" when Blair emerged but, even before New Labour came to power in 1997, became increasingly suspicious—a word that comes up a lot when Iannucci talks about politicians—of him. A turning point came in the autumn of 1996, when Iannucci went to Blackpool with Steve Coogan to do an Alan-Partridge-interviews-Tony-Blair skit at the Labour party conference. After reading the script for ten minutes and running some of the jokes past Peter Mandelson, Blair did the routine perfectly. "I just thought, 'That's frightening,'" Iannucci says. "'He's an actor.'"

Iannucci was ambivalent about Blair's other wars. He says he "saw the point" of intervening in Kosovo in 1999 but was also suspicious—that word again—about the idea of humanitarian intervention. "It's basically you saying international law is fine unless you disagree with it," he says. He could also see the logic of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. But the Iraq war was a different matter. "In my head I was thinking, even if there are weapons of mass destruction, this is wrong," he says. He also says the British media failed to challenge Blair. "He was allowed to get away with saying, 'Look, if you've seen the stuff I've seen, you'd do the same.'"

Even now that he is gone, Blair seems to loom large for Iannucci. In fact, part of the reason for his scepticism about the Obama administration is that the new American president actually reminds him a little of Blair in 1997. Both campaigned on the idea of change, but he says Obama is now discovering, as Blair discovered, how hard it was to make change a reality. "I'm just beginning to see that edge in Obama's tone of voice," he says. He slips into an impression of Obama, albeit in a Scottish accent: "'I've only been in 40 days but I'm already I'm quite annoyed, because quite a lot of things I wanted to happen haven't happened, and I'm getting more and more annoyed you're asking me about it. Please stop it! Can't you see I'm busy?'"

Iannucci's deep-seated suspicion of politicians co-exists with a certain sympathy for them as human beings. He says it would be wrong to watch In the Loop and conclude that that he sees all politicians as all weak and vain. "I very much want the audience to be saying of someone like Simon Foster in the film, 'If I were him I'd probably end up doing the same,'" he says. And yet Iannucci seems to stop himself empathising too much with politicians. When I ask him if there any politicians he actually admires, he bursts out laughing. "God! I can't think of any," he says. It's as if his instinctive suspiciousness towards politicians has suddenly returned. "I always admire them when they've retired."