Despite what you might have read in the over-hyped reviews for “In the Loop”, this is not a satire on the build-up to any war in the Middle East, including the one that began in 2003. It is instead a commentary on the back-stabbing behavior of high-powered governmental functionaries in the U.S. and Great Britain that throughout its 106 minutes contains not a single political conversation.
We are led to believe that Pentagon generals, British foreign office functionaries, and inside-the-beltway policy wonks could be capable of not mentioning a single word about the ostensible enemy despite the reality of White House obsession with Saddam Hussein in 2003. Instead, the power-brokers, both men and women, spend all their time cursing each other out with particular emphasis on the size of the men’s penises. One supposes that A.O. Scott, the N.Y. Times movie reviewer, flipped out over this sorry movie (“The audience…is likely to die laughing”) because it reminds him of what goes on at his job.
Some reviewers compare “In the Loop” to “Dr. Strangelove”. For this comparison to work, you have to imagine a “Dr. Strangelove” without any reference to a looming nuclear war with Russia. Instead we would be treated to George C. Scott’s colorful portrayal as General ‘Buck’ Turgidson but captured entirely in the bedroom rather than the “war room”. Who would want to be inconvenienced with boring discussions about the impact of a thermonuclear device on New York City or Moscow when you can get laughs watching Turgidson prancing about in his underwear?
“In the Loop” reminded me of last year’s “Nothing but the Truth”, a movie inspired by the Judith Miller/Valerie Plame contretemps but utterly devoid of politics. The movie begins with some vague reference to CIA military intervention in Venezuela in order to get the plot moving, but switches gears to become a sterile melodrama about professional ethics and the ambitions of strong-willed women. A big yawn in other words.
The movie begins with a low-level British foreign affairs minister being interviewed about sexually transmitted diseases, his specialty. When asked whether he thought that a war would be fought in the Middle East, he replies that such an event is “unforeseeable”. The doves interpret this as opposition to war, while the hawks spin it in the other direction. The foreign minister is a character similar to Zelig or Peter Sellers in “Being There”. Meanwhile, James Gandolfini of “Sopranos” fame plays a Pentagon general who also likes to be seen as dovish or hawkish to fit the occasion, a supposed reference to General Colin Powell. The only problem with this, of course, was Powell’s full-throated warmongering in 2003. He only became ambivalent about the war after it became costly, just as was the case with most politicians including Barack Obama.
The movie was directed by Armando Iannucci, a Scotsman of Italian descent who also directed “The Thick of It”, a BBC comedy with the same narrow focus as “In the Loop”—nothing so boring as politics ever makes its presence in this television show apparently. It instead prefers to reveal what miscreants run the British government, as if we needed to watch television to learn that. Iannucci’s inspiration was “Yes, Minister”, another comedy of bad manners that used to air on PBS. I once watched 10 minutes of it before switching the dial out of fear of being turned into a pillar of stone.
I doubt that I could improve on the proper trashing of “Hurt Locker” by Jay Rothermel that appeared today on Marxmail. It includes the following observations that I could not agree more strongly with:
The Hollywood combat movie is a genre notorious for hoary clichés. We all know them: at least one solider is on the verge of going home. Another loves war a little too much. A third, from the rear echelon, wants to see some real action. Around camp a G.I. might befriend a local boy, a Samuel Fuller war orphan with a name like Short Round. If Fuller or Robert Aldrich made the movie, most of the officers would be useless tyros or dangerous martinets. The Black soldier would come off hard-as-nails, but reveal himself late in the movie as the heart of the unit. The youngest baby-faced grunt would have a meltdown. There would be some lighter escapades, too, to break-up the bigger combat scenes: men carousing and “getting down” to the soundtrack’s rock and roll music.
“The Hurt Locker” is sold as a vigorously up-to-date hand-held no-stars kitchen-sink realist combat movie with none of these trite and ancient plot points. On this the TV commercials, stellar reviews, and print ads all agree. But the movie has them. Indeed, it seems like an encyclopedia of such clichés. So many are used that the viewer starts to feel like the victim of a practical joke, lured to the theater with the old bait-and-switch.
I would only add a couple of my own complaints. In one scene the American bomb defusing expert, one Sergeant James, scours an abandoned bomb factory, where he discovers a dead Iraqi boy who has been booby-trapped. In keeping with the sensationalist approach of director Kathryn Bigelow, James uses his knife to surgically remove the bomb. To add to the melodrama, the boy is assumed to be a street kid that Sergeant James has befriended, a DVD peddler who calls himself Beckham after the soccer superstar.
Now there have been few reports of booby-trapped corpses in Iraq, but those have exclusively involved occupation forces, either military or civilian like truck drivers. The idea that Sunni insurgents would defile the corpse of a Muslim, even if it belonged to a Shi’ite is unbelievable. As deeply religious rebels, they were and are obviously constrained by their beliefs. The Muslim religion dictates a rapid burial and not the use of a dead believer’s body for a weapon. Suicide bombing, of course, is an entirely different matter that while not exactly sanctioned by the religion is not in open defiance of its strictures, at least as interpreted by its Imams, which is all that matters in the final analysis.
In some ways, this lack of verisimilitude reminded me of “The Deer Hunter”, another war movie that also aspired to transcend the genre’s conventions. In one of the most heralded scenes in the movie, the Vietnamese force an American captive to play Russian roulette. As it turns out, the only record of such a gruesome form of mental and physical torture taking place during the war was imposed by Americans on their Vietnamese captives. That’s par for the course in Hollywood, where demonization of the Empire’s enemies is a requirement for career advancement.
In another scene that is directly related to the scene described above, Sergeant James forces another Arab DVD peddler to drive him to the house where Beckham was booby-trapped, or where he lived. Like much of this movie, it is rather murky what his goal is. When he gets there, pistol in hand, he discovers that it is a middle-class home with an older man preparing dinner in the kitchen. The man, a college professor who speaks English, is not intimidated by the gun and invites him to share tea with him. We are finally on the verge, it would appear, of having some serious dramatic interaction and revelations about how the Arab perceives the occupying powers. But just as soon as the professor makes his invitation, his wife bursts into the kitchen and beats Sergeant James over the head with a metal pot. Our intrepid GI, unafraid of the deadliest bombs, goes running off into the night and no further words are exchanged with the Iraqi man and woman. I imagine that the screenwriter was incapable of writing dialog appropriate to the scene. He was much better suited obviously for having his principals say things like “Haji at 2:00″.