Weekend Film Recommendation: In the Loop

Before he was elected to serve as the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi was a well-recognised face on the British comedy circuit for having played Malcolm Tucker, Armando Iannucci’s thinly-veiled lampoon of Alastair Campbell. Tucker rose to prominence thanks to Iannucci’s wildly successful television show, The Thick of It, which ended recently after its fourth season. The Thick of It formed the basis of two spin-offs, one of which is HBO’s Veep (more on that here), and the other is this week’s movie recommendation, titled In the Loop (2009).

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 00.17.39

The film deals with meetings between US State Department officials and UK politicians after a blunderous radio interview, in which a junior MP has unwittingly suggested that we must initiate war in the Middle East as a matter of principle. British and American politicians alike seize on the opportunity either to exercise their trigger finger or to seem like the cautious restrainer-in-chief, depending purely on what they anticipate will make them look good. The rest of the film is about how middlemen and executives shape policy in their efforts to seem competent. It’s that performance of competence, rather than its true presence, that forms the focus of the satire.

A lot of the film plays not only on the political environment and the fickleness of its key players; there’s a hefty dose of ridicule pointed toward the way the political world was often represented in a Sorkin-steeped, Obama-canonising 2008. While the dialogue is precise and lightning-quick, it’s also incomparably crude. In place of the strategic shadowing and earth-tones of your garden-variety political drama, the colours in In the Loop are bright and etiolated, lending to a sense that everyone’s exhausted, and their flaws are always in full view. While the edgy, hand-held camera-work conveys the frenetic atmosphere of snap judgments (recall the famous West Wing corridor walk-n’-talk), the camera clumsily chases behind the characters as they spend time locating the correct room for a meeting. By the end of the film, you feel less like a spectator and more like the bumbling assistant trying unsuccessfully to take notes on scraps of paper. A glamorous ‘halls of power’ drama from a British perspective it ain’t.

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 00.18.06The challenge with political satire, and especially when placed in the medium of film (where the gimmick has plenty of time to play out), is that it isn’t being done right if the whole thing seems like poking fun at ‘those people over there’ while leaving us unharmed. If we’re not part of the ridicule, then the whole exercise seems a little bit… pointless. In the Loop’s success in making ‘those people over there’ look like self-serving conniving scumbags is ultimately attenuated because they end up being so successful at hiding their incompetence. We (the viewers, the electorate) can’t really be blamed for not having noticed the innumerable screw-ups along the way, so we remain ignorant and blameless. The result is the duality of conspiracy that Keith has referred to on this site before: the architects of the conspiracy must be both so incompetent that they need to construct an elaborate cover-up in the first place, while also being so competent at hiding their charade that most people never notice.

I’d say I have a favourite moment, but really any scene with James Gandolfini will do. The film is a superb showcase for his considerable comic talents. If you watch him spar with Peter Capaldi and fail to chuckle, I’ll eat my hat. As for Malcolm Tucker, well, as one of the most bilious and acerbic abominations to have been coughed up onto the screen, Capaldi brings a whole new, glorious meaning to the term vicarious catharsis. Listen to his improvised excoriation for a few minutes and feel your stresses slide away.

Syria thread

A thread on the mooted intervention in Syria.

Commenters may want a Syria thread.

I have no peculiar insight to share with you, only the commonplaces.

Obama´s arguments for intervention:
P1. The use of poison gas is a war crime; against civilians, an odious one. It should be punished if possible.
P2. He, Obama, personally laid down a red line on the subject. Failure to follow through weakens the standing and credibility of the US.
P3. An intervention limited to bombing is likely to greatly reduce the Syrian government´s capacity and willingness to use chemical weapons again in the civil war.

Arguments against:
A1. A unilateral armed intervention, however limited, without the sanction of the UNSC, is itself a violation of international law. There is no prospect of an UNSC resolution authorising force, given Russian and Chinese opposition. You can´t uphold international law by means that violate it. (UNSC sanction isn´t needed for self-defence, but nobody is claiming that this applies.)
A2. The intervention has no prospect of ending the conflict through bringing about a negotiated peace, or the victory of either side.
A3. The slippery slope: given the very limited effect of the bombing envisaged, it will create strong pressures for further and more decisive involvement. This would have unpredictable outcomes, many of the possibilities being very bad.
A4. Precedents: the recent history of US armed involvements in the region does not support optimism about the effects of another one.
A5. Credibility does not require you to make good on all your threats, which makes bluffing unusable. It´s unlikely, after Iraq 1 and 2, Afgahanistan, Bin Laden, Guantanamo, Kosovo and Libya that foreign rulers will suddenly stop worrying about threats from the US government, especially on matters where its national interests are more clearly at stake.

Am I leaving anything vital out?

FWIW, I give a lot of weight to A2. The interventions in Kosovo and Libya were also illegal by the same standard, but they had the merit of being decisive. The standard criteria for just war include a good chance of winning; you should not shed blood for symbols.

In the Libyan case, it´s actually a good thing that Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy lied about their objectives of the bombing: their real aim was to overthrow Gaddafi by backing his opponents (a far more united and credible bunch than the Syrian rebels), and their means were sufficient to achieve this. Libya is still a mess, though probably an improvement on Gafafi´s creepy police state.

War crimes and other blunders

Helping Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons was about par for the course in the Reagan Administration.

The United States government supplied targeting intelligence to Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) for what it knew would be chemical-weapons attacks on Iran in 1988.

Gee, I wonder who was President back then? Could it be the same guy who stood by and watched the AIDS epidemic and the crack wave develop while his wife chanted idiot slogans? The same guy who sold weapons to Iran and allowed cocaine-dealing into the U.S. to fund a terrorist effort in Nicaragua? The one who perfected the deal between the plutocrats and the neo-Confederates that gave us the contemporary GOP?

No wonder he’s treated as such a moral midget, and his Presidency as such an utter failure. It wasn’t easy to make Richard Nixon look like a statesman, but St. Ronald of the Ray-Guns did it.

Remembering the Guns of August

trenchesHow shall we commemorate war, if we should? The Great War centenary is raising these questions in Europe.

Norman Walter, of the German embassy in London, makes this invidious comparison:

There is simply a different culture in this country [Britain]. You have much more military events than we do, like Trooping the Colour. We don’t want to commemorate the battles. We want to commemorate the dead.

I have little expertise and no personal experience to contribute to this debate, but am sure it is important. I do find it strange though that some people see the war commemoration as a chance to celebrate the relatively closer integration of elites in Europe today, when so many of the leaders of the World War I nations were members of the same family (literally).

“A monument to man’s stupidity”

On Keith’s post below: Note that something can be a monument to “man’s” (collective) stupidity without reflecting stupidity on the part of any actual individual or group. As Robert Frank says, lots of behaviors are smart for (every) one, even if they’re dumb for all.

War (in this respect like incarceration) always reflects the failure of deterrence. Surely there was a better outcome available to both sides. But that doesn’t mean that a better outcome was available to either side through its own action. If the war ends in more or less a draw, it’s possible that each side does better by fighting than it could have done by surrendering. If the war ends in total defeat for one side, then in retrospect that side would have been better off not fighting. But hindsight is better than foresight. And the winner sometimes – though not always – gets a prize worth fighting for, or at least avoids an outcome worth fighting to prevent.

Of course, this wouldn’t be true if people on both sides treated losses on the other side as bad and important.

Footnote Note to EU-haters: How many people died in European wars in the sixty-three years before the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950? And how many have died in the sixty-three years since? I rest my case.