When Moments of Truth was launched, it was done with a few simple rules in mind, two of which are: don’t use foul language, and stay away from politics. But to all rules there must be the occasional exception. And few films are more deserving of than a brilliant, profane and fearsome bit of satire about the moral gyrations of mercenary political hacks as they alternately try to help start and prevent a baseless war in the Middle East. The entire movie is a severe broadside at the truth-free zone in which top-level politicos tend to dwell, as well as an extended commentary on how grand fiascos like the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq get their start. It is a master class in profanity, with the word “fuck” appearing more than 150 times in some way, shape or form. It isn’t the most curse-laden movie ever made (not even close, actually; it doesn’t even break the top 100 films for usage of the word “fuck”), but it is the deadliest example of weaponized word choice in the history of the English language. It is a movie that should be required viewing for anyone who wants to get into politics, except that nowadays it plays more like a documentary than hyperbolic political satire: In the Loop.
The story takes place in 2009, as U.S. foreign policy hawks are trying to build support for a hazily-defined “intervention in the Middle East.” We don’t know what country the U.S. wants to invade, or why. Just that it doesn’t have enough combat-ready troops at the moment to get the job done right, so it calls on the United Kingdom to help internationalize this charge into mayhem. The story begins when a feckless UK cabinet minister makes a verbal gaffe on the radio that sounds like an argument for war. This sets off a chain of media coverage and frantic spin doctoring that might just give the Americans the juice they need to force a UN vote approving military intervention.and commit the UK to go along with it. Government officials on both sides of the pond try to submarine this effort by ginning up false intelligence, browbeating each other without mercy, and waffling themselves into concentrically dwindling circles until at last all they have left are their well-crafted self-justifications that everything turned out as it ought to have, that everyone involved is on the right side of history, and that anybody who got seriously screwed over in this whole thing probably had it coming.
In the Loop is one of those political comedies that doesn’t really go after any particular party, but the process of politics itself. Sure, it has harsh things to say about political careerists who help push for a war they will never have to fight in. By extension, we can see that as a criticism of a certain administration that pushed for a war in Iraq built on false evidence. But that’s as far as the finger-pointing goes; no names are named, and no obvious stand-ins exist here. This is a story about the second string of political administrations—the insanely turbocharged ministers, advisors, secretaries, officers, adjuncts, ages and interns who are all part of the brutal sausage-making that is foreign policy. It is a completely unromantic and de-glorified depiction of the ugliest part of the underbelly of international politics. Because that is where the real humor is.
As for humor, In the Loop doesn’t so much set up jokes as it feeds a whole belt of them into a heavy machine-gun and sprays the audience until the barrel melts. It is a nonstop barrage of put-downs and verbal eviscerations so fast and furious that one wonders why there needs to be a UN vote to justify an unjustifiable war in the first place. Just send over Director of Communications Malcom Tucker and Senior Press Officer Jamie McDonald and they’ll talk you into into such a bloody haze of smithereens that will make anyone pray for a swift death.
Tucker steals every scene he is in as the maniacally intense avatar of a Prime Minister who needs his cabinet minsters to toe the line on a policy that is itself impossible to deduce. When he is not successfully cowing journalists with threats of blackmail, Tucker is giving government officials PTSD with his lethal whipsawing of anyone who fails to give him what he wants. And the best part about it all is he is not the worst of the bunch. For really bad situations, Tucker turns to his pit bull Jamie McDonald, described by Tucker himself as “the crossest man in Scotland” and by a fellow colleague as someone built by Tucker “out of parts from old psychopaths.” Watching Tucker and McDonald impose their will on an impossible situation is so sublimely horrifying that it proves how the most dangerous thing in the world is not a man with zero fucks to give. It’s two Scots with a million fucks to give, and they’re going to give them all to you.
The moment of truth comes when Tucker and Macdonald find themselves out of options, required to produce a UN vote in favor of war, and no good reason for any of it. So they finally ditch all pretense, sit down and fabricate the evidence they need by dictating it to a pair of fall guys in their administration who then are fired immediately afterward for trying to do the right thing. It’s an end so bleak, so bereft of morality and so without hope that it somehow becomes hilarious once again. Why? Maybe that’s explained best by a far greater leader than anybody in this story (or in today’s politics, for that matter), who once said after a great bloodletting, “I laugh because I must not cry.” If he ever met Malcom Tucker, he’d probably forget the laughter.