dir: Armando Iannucci
So many swears! This movie has more swearing in it than Scarface! Think of any sweary film you can think of, and this movie has five times the amount of swearing. And that’s a lot.
It’s almost too much. It’s almost embarrassing to admit such a thing, but I was exhausted at the end of this. Partly from having laughed so much, but also from having to concentrate for so long to separate the sometimes quite inventive swearing from the actual dialogue, and then trying to remember how it all fits together, despite or because of the swearing.
Ultimately, this is a comedy. A quite funny comedy. It’s shot in that mockumentary style that has become ubiquitous since the original The Office series, and now is replicated in every corner of the medium. If you don’t know what I mean, I can simplify it quite easily: shakily filmed video mostly of people in office spaces.
The premise is a little bit more complicated than the setting. Even though the setting itself could be any office anywhere, what with its water coolers, fax machines and cups of coffee, the characters, most of whom were playing the same or similar roles in the series these same characters were in, are mostly British apparatchiks (that’s bureaucrats to the rest of you), ministers and minister’s advisers, who are all flailing about in the lead up to some seemingly unavoidable war.
Clearly it’s all fiction. A particularly ineffectual and silly minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) makes the comment during a boring interview when asked, as rumours of war circulate, that he believes war to be “unforeseeable”. This ambiguous word somehow unleashes a shit storm of international proportions, as people across both sides of the pond, try to use the ensuing drama to their advantage.
Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister’s media adviser, who I’m sure only bears a passing similarity to former PM Tony Blair’s chief hired media goon Alistair Campbell, is a fearsome Scot who no-one seems to be able to stand up to. The waves of filth that emerge from this fucker’s mouth have to be heard to be believed. He abuses and threatens anyone and everyone, especially the hapless minister whose wrath he has incurred with his slip of the tongue.
What’s the problem? Well, in this day and age, where the use of words in the media, and their abuse of meaning puts the term Orwellian to shame, ‘unforeseeable’ gets the minister in trouble with his betters because it both indicates and doesn’t indicate that the invasion of, uh, I dunno, some vaguely Middle Eastern country, is being planned or isn’t being planned.
Why does it matter? Well, because perception and manipulation of public opinion (which is a nebulous and capricious beast at the best and worst of times) through manipulating the media is far more important that what actually happens or what’s actually at stake, didn’t you know? And what is the opposite of inevitable? Evitable?
See, when you make a comedy about something really, really serious, like an invasion which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, people call it a satire reflexively, as if it couldn’t be anything else. I’m asserting that this flick isn’t a satire at all, because despite trying to be funny and obviously not trying to accurately capture what happened in the lead up to the war, it achieves both those ends yet manages to still be quite depressing.
Office work, where most of us work (at least the most of us with access during work-time to computers upon which reviews can be written or read), is never sustainably that funny. Long patches of boredom permeate throughout. This flick doesn’t purport to be an accurate reflection of parliamentary process, UN procedure and the machinations enjoyed/abused by the people that work thereabouts, but it’s trying to be credibly within the realm of the people who played their part in the lead up to Iraq Adventure II. Let’s not forget the crucial role Britain and Tony Blair, and his henchmen played in that fiasco.
No, I’m not talking about any incompetent ministers whose blunders were used to justify the war. But the casus belli, the justification for the invasion, let’s not forget, was helpfully supplied by British Intelligence, and, with Campbell’s fingerprints all over them, the so-called September and Iraq Dossiers, which fabricated evidence to make it match the bullshit the Pentagon was spinning at the time.
And, of course, there’s that classic line about yellow-cake uranium in Africa, and a certain Iraqi dictator wanting to procure some of it that Colin Powell regrets uttering to this day.
These events are now a matter of public record, so we don’t need the history lesson, or at least I don’t. And probably you don’t either. What you want to know is whether this fiasco is dealt with in an entertaining and funny manner.
It certainly is. The constant stream of language may bruise the ears and strain concentration, but the resulting package is nothing short of hilarious. Watching the minister flail about ineffectually as his aides Judy (Gina McKee) and especially newbie Toby (Chris Addison) try to save him from his own gaffes and his own ineffectuality is the stuff of pure delight. It put a big old smile in my heart.
I’m in two minds about the Malcolm abuse towards all and sundry. It’s funny to watch him screaming abuse down a phone line, but when he’s haranguing people using the ugliest language he can think of, and they sit there, it’s kind of off-putting. This is, after all, behaviour that isn’t allowable in most government workplaces because of the inevitable lawsuits. And watching a poor office drone being bullied and threatened by someone they can’t fight back against is about as fair or funny as watching the poor victims in the horrific Hostel films being taken apart by their torturers.
When it comes down to it, the real objects of ridicule are the egos of the people involved in these kinds of transpirings. The Malcolm Tuckers and Linton Barwicks of the world may in fact exist, but their drive to achieve their objectives, with ends entirely justifying means, is satirised ultimately for being the result of having these borderline sociopathic people in these positions of power in the first place, because who else has the drive for such endeavours?
The hapless MP might be completely hopeless at his job, and might not give anything but a token stuff about his constituency, but at least he doesn’t have the taste for evil that his betters require of him. But through Toby, who is supposed to be young and idealistic, we see the glimpses of how someone turns to the dark side when he advises something completely contrary to ethical principle and common decency. His little diatribe regarding how it’s easy to do the right thing, that maybe it takes more balls to be dishonest and do the wrong thing by the world is funny, but chilling. These are the guys who end up spinning the worst abuses of government, and concocting the most heinous excuses for wrongdoing, even though they might look like choirboys.
Lest it be seen entirely as being for a few chuckles and nothing more, there are, after all, those instances where Tucker and his ilk, on the other side of the pond, utter the utterly chilling words that will mean what they intend them to mean, and the assertion that records of conversation and meeting minutes will be expunged in order to assert their version of history makes me ill to my stomach. This didn’t start recently, of course, but that doesn’t make it any harder to swallow, to see the magnitude of arrogance on display.
Of course any person old enough has seen enough satires and comedies regarding government, especially Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister in the British context, to know that there is much humour to be garnered from ridiculing these prime arseholes. The real meat and potatoes substance comes from showing why the apparatus of state is subject to the whims and egos of madmen and egomaniacs. The spirit of Nigel Hawthorne hovers over such a production, even as it arises from a much earlier era, but his Sir Humphrey Appleby is still peerless in the pantheon of Machiavellian political figures. Malcolm Tucker of course achieves his aims through viciousness, brutality and dishonesty, but he knows how to use the vanity and self-interest of ministers, journalists and the in-betweens to his advantage as well.
The flick doesn’t just mock the British political system, seeing as much of the flick transpires Stateside as well, as a well-meaning politician (Mimi Kennedy) and a general opposed to the war (James Gandolfini, who seems like he’s going to be playing variations on the theme of Tony Soprano until the grave) also try to manipulate and use their British counterparts for their own ends. But they have other, meaner operators to answer to, who don’t follow the honest and brutal approach of Malcolm Tucker to achieve their ends, instead relying on a certain gliding mealy-mouthed and cowardly mendacity to get where they need to get. It’s no less biting on their side.
There are some sterling comedic performances here, but no-one’s really stretching that much, except perhaps for Peter Capaldi, who eternally seems like he’s one screamed insult away from popping the strained tendons in his neck. He’s a delight to watch even if he’s purest evil.
Or maybe because of it. Chris Addison as the well-meaning, young moral vacuum Toby is all over the place, and is mostly an exponent of extreme awkwardness at all times. He does perhaps get the finest moment in the flick when, caught out over infidelity, he tries to excuse himself by implying that it was his attempt to stop the war. My favourite pop culture – insult also comes when Tucker calls Toby Kunta Kinte, for reasons that would be obvious only to anyone who remembers Roots. But then he also calls him the baby from Eraserhead, so, you know, take your pick.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it’s not for those with sensitive ears or who don’t have enough cynical bile welling up within them for the whole sorry mess that is contemporary politics. Anyone who thinks the whole political clusterfuck ended when Blair and Bush left office, and that this golden age of Obama signifies the end of such shenanigans need not apply.
7 times I’m glad I work for incompetent instead of brutal people out of 10
“Within your 'purview'? Where do you think you are, some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!” – I can’t remember which part of the Bible that line comes from, but I’m sure it’s in there – In the Loop.