Speaking by phone from London, writer-director Armando Iannucci expressed regret that he wasn't able to attend SIFF for his gala opener, In the Loop. One cast member who did attend, David Rasche, told him "it went really well--3,000 seats or so," as the Paramount was in fact full to capacity for the well-received political comedy.
The reason for Iannucci's absence, he explains in a Scottish-accented purr, is his satirical BBC TV show The Thick of It: "I'm in the middle of making it now, which is why I couldn't make it to Seattle." Currently in its third season, that show and its star, Peter Capaldi (pictured at left), gave rise to the movie, which opens Friday at the Harvard Exit (review).
So why, I ask Iannucci, can't we have any decent scripted political satire on American TV? Or movies, for that matter? What's the difference between us and the Brits?
He responds, "I don't know why that it is. The thing about The West Wing, is that everyone in it is very virtuous. They're very good at their job. I don't know whether in the UK the idea of politicians being good at their job would be taken seriously."
For Americans curious about the first two seasons of The Thick of It, says Iannucci, "Obviously you can get it on Amazon. So it would be in UK format [PAL]. We're already in discussions with BBC America about another season being shown in the U.S. I hope that with the film coming out, we'd be able to find some interest."
That would be in the show's original, undiluted form. But Iannucci has previously ventured to Hollywood to discuss an American version of the show, which revolves around the power-mad venality of Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker, a ministry hatchet man, and his terrified underlings.
Iannucci recalls, "We tried to make an American version of The Thick of It, but all the swearing was taken out, and everything was slowed down, and everything was very gentle. It was very uninteresting."
You can't do nice and satire at the same time. All parties must be disrespected equally, which is one of the differences Iannucci sees between American and British political culture. Here, in the U.S., "Journalistically, there's much more respect for the office of the president. Our prime minister is just an elected politician. The office itself doesn't guarantee them good press, so they're constantly having to earn it. Whereas in the White House, no matter what you think of the occupant of the White House, you have a different attitude toward the post of president."
For a past golden age American political satire, one has to reach back to the Nixon era, when hatred for the president was widespread. After that, Iannucci cites HBO's Tanner '88, a collaboration between Robert Altman and Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau. Both those figures were scoffers from the anti-establishment left. By contrast, most political humor today is rather centrist--as reflected in the very names of Iannucci's two projects. His characters are desperate, harried insiders, and they cling to that status.
Thus, Iannucci says of his foul-mouthed hero, "In the TV show, he's used to being in control. What I felt would be interesting in the film would be taking Malcolm out of his comfort zone, and putting him in an area where he has no control. In fact, other people are controlling him."
(Capaldi chews out an underling, played by Chris Addison)
Other, younger people. Much of the humor in In the Loop stems from the underlings, both British and American, both confounding and being confounded by their superiors. Iannucci explains, "That's the other frightening thing. I got this from my research down in Washington, DC, finding that people were quite young and relatively inexperienced outside the world of politics. Who can--if they're ambitious and wily and clever--get power. You don't have to wait until you're 55. It's remarkable, really."
These fresh-faced innocents don't start out corrupt, says, Iannucci: "I'm sure everyone goes into politics with noble intentions. And it's that old question of how much you compromise yourself, telling yourself you're doing so for the greater good. That the end justifies the means. And that starts coloring how you get into power. It all builds up with little moments of venality.
"People who think of themselves as being good--we see a little bit of their soul being sold to the devil. I like the idea of being slightly disappointed by some of the goodies and slightly surprised by some of the baddies, slightly warming to the baddies by the end.
The baddies here include Tucker and his American counterpart, the Cheney-esque neocon Linton Barwick (played by David Rasche). And they're fun to watch because, unlike their wavering apprentices, they have a purity of purpose, unmuddied by moral scruple.
"There is a single-mindedness there," says Iannucci. "By the end, people are sort of rooting for Malcolm, even though he's on the pro-war side. It's all about perspective, isn't it? In the UK, he's seen as this giant towering over the others. But then suddenly, when they're in a place far, far bigger than them [Washington, DC], Tucker no longer seems a giant. He seems as small as the others."
Tucker's opposite is a meek, basically decent MP called Simon Foster (played by Tom Hollander, familiar to some as a baddie in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.) Foster doesn't want to go to war, says Iannucci, but he also wants to keep his job. And unlike Tucker, he's elected and accountable. Foster is "sort of the everyman. He's full of doubt and so on. That allows us to identify him. And then work out what we would do in his same position."
On the set, Iannucci recalls, he told Hollander, "Malcolm Tucker has sold his soul to the devil. Simon Foster is still in the process of speaking to the devil, but still hasn't quite sorted the deal out, and he could still walk away."
Yet Iannucci insists of his characters, "They don't see themselves as evil people, as nasty people." He sees Foster, a low-level MP, being seduced by "the glamour of being on the international stage"--a trip to Washington, cocktail parties, a hotel suite with mini-bar. It's far from the dull reality back home of constituent service.
In particular, Foster is based on Britain's last Prime Minster, Iannucci explains: "Every time Tony Blair came out to Washington, he looked very excited. And every time he came back home, he looked kind of bored by the mundane domestic politics he had to deal with. In the UK, politicians have to deal with the public. Because they're elected by their constituency. So they have to deal with constituency matters that can be very mundane matters, like collapsing walls and sorting drains out. Steve Coogan's character represents that..."
Ah, Steve Coogan. That genius comic performer has a small role in In the Loop, playing an irate constituent of Hollander's MP. He's the rural voter with, yes, a collapsing garden wall. And having obtained the politician's cell phone number, he keeps calling Hollander over in DC during high-pressure meetings. Coogan and Iannucci go back to their collaboration on the brilliant Alan Partridge TV shows, about a dimwit television host (Coogan) who fatally overestimates his own importance. Partridge wants desperately to please his viewers, but continually fails.
Tucker, on the other hand, has no viewers or voters to hold him accountable. Says Iannucci, "He wouldn't survive as an elected politician. The idea of having to modify what he says to make other people happy isn't something he could cope with. His regard is for making sure everyone--politicians, media, everyone--stays in line. He hates it when events take over."