In this exciting episode, current events compel us to compare two political satires about dodgy dealings in the march to war with Wag The Dog and In The Loop. Just how do the Yanks and the Limeys deal with comedies about such a delicate subject? Join us and find out!
We thought we’d change things up a little, after a year of our podcast. On reflection, a main podcast feed doesn’t seem to be quite the right place for movie commentaries to appear, certainly not when we think about the way we happen to listen to podcasts. I’m sure we’ll do a few more commentaries down the line, but for a while at least, we’re going to spend the 10th comparing and contrasting two films that have similar subjects, premises or themes, but take either different approaches or, perhaps, are just of wildly differing quality.
We’re looking at political satire this month, as current Brexit-based events are so resplendently ludicrous that we now seem to have moved entirely beyond satire, rendering it redundant. Not that we’re bitter, or incandescently angry. Also, with the much delayed Chilcot Report into the U.K.’s role in the Iraq War rearing its head on the day we record this, we thought we’d look at an American and British take on manipulating a war for political gains with 1997’s Wag the Dog and 2009’s In the Loop.
Barry Levinson’s 1997 outing adapts Larry Beinhart’s American Hero, a novel that floats the suggestion that the first Gulf War was orchestrated to increase George Bush the Elder’s popularity, mirroring the Falkland War / Margaret Thatcher situation. Here the POTUS is bedevilled by a brewing sex scandal a few weeks out from re-election, so White House aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) call in ‘fixer’ Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) to crisis manage the looming PR disaster.
His solution is to distract the media and public by going to war, or give a very strong impression of having gone to war, if not exactly doing any of the actual fighting that generally constitutes a war. Having picked the Albanians as a usefully obscure scapegoat, he enlists the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to, well, produce the war, including filming faked war footage and generally defining the narrative, along with his shadowy cabinet including the likes of Denis Leary and Willie Nelson, who are essentially playing themselves.
Surprisingly (incredulously) this seems to be working, until the CIA (represented here mainly by William H. Macy) stick their oar in, not best pleased about this fakery and throwing hints to the challenger that combat operations have ended. It’s too soon for Motss to contemplate stopping the story, so they gin up the wheeze of a soldier left behind enemy lines that they hope the country will unite behind. Again, this seems to be working until a casting mishap sees them working with Woody Harrelson’s Sergeant William Schumann, a military prisoner who’s more “dangerously disturbed” than “lovable rogue”.
And so it goes, and while it rather stretches belief that seemingly no-one in the media thought to go the the “frontlines” and check on any of this, there’s enough bluster from Dustin Hoffman and co to blow over that plot hole – although perhaps I’m just viewing this from the comforting distance of the age of social media. I don’t know what Albania’s Twitter engagement numbers are, but I doubt they’re bad enough to let a fake war rampage through their country without a counter-narrative emerging.
Wag the Dog features great comic turns from all involved, leads and supports, headed by Hoffman’s domineering performance that’s great fun to watch, and it’s a great reminder of Robert De Niro’s capacity for actual comedy that is funny, as opposed to his more recent habit of appearing in proported comedies that are very much not funny. Hell, even Denis Leary’s tolerable, and that’s as highly as I’ve ever rated him.
As far as any film coming out of Hollywood is concerned, this is as black a comedy as is imaginable – or certainly from a major studio with this star power behind it. Again, as viewed from the modern era. Cynicism in Hollywood movies seems to have reduced greatly after 9/11 for understandable reasons, and between social changes and business case it’s probably never going to return to the Vietnam-era grim-ness that Wag the Dog might be the last comic response to. Nightcrawler might be as close as we get to Taxi Driver, but at least we’ve got plenty of Marvel films to distract us.
One of the few films I’ve seen that features a aeroplane crash purely for narrative convenience. Still, hugely enjoyable stuff and highly recommended.
On a rough calculation, Armando Iannucci has either involved in around 80% off all the British comedy I’ve liked over the past twenty-odd years. Here he directs and co-writes what’s essentially the halfway point between his TV shows, The Thick of It and Veep, set in both Whitehall and the White House.
Returning from The Thick of It, The Prime Minister’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) is called in to carpet Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the Secretary of State for International Development for straying from the official line during a radio interview on a possible looming war with an unnamed Middle Eastern state, although obviously it’s Iraq. It’s difficult to have some sympathy for Simon, as the government’s position seems to be that conflict is neither unforseeable or foreseeable.
After a subsequent media interview concludes with him unintentionally giving a metaphoric pro-war stance, he’s sent to Washington on a”fact-finding” mission, largely in the role of a useful idiot, along with new special advisor Toby (Chris Addison). Here they bounce around meetings with the likes of anti-war US Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) and Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini), and pro-war US Assistant Secretary of State for Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) while displaying their typical levels of awkwardness and incompetence.
No less important is Malcolm’s “dodgy dossier” of dubiously sourced intelligence that supports the case for war which, and as the Chilcot report would seem to suggest, is an almost documentarian look at this obvious nonsense’s real-life analogue.
In the Loop_shows a side of the White House machine that’s rarely mentioned, let alone put in film. Shows like _The West Wing show one side of the coin, an powerful purposeful executive largely devoted to bettering the world, and even when the White House is on the antagonist side of the coin, they’re ruthless, competent and driven. In the Loop takes that fictional coin away and replaces it with something closer to the truth, and substantially more relatable – a bunch of offices full of people bumbling around doing the best they can in the current situation, which if you’re lucky might look something like a coherent plan when viewed from history’s remove.
If there’s a film with a better grasp of language I’ve certainly not seen it. Vulgar, for sure, but the inventiveness of the dialogue is truly incredible, making this one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. There’s not a weak link in the fantastic ensemble cast, and despite dealing with what’s essentially the minutiae of the process it ploughs through with such pace that there’s not a wasted second in the piece.
Incredible movie, one of my all time favourites.
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