Director, co-writer of In the Loop.
In the Loop takes the view that the US-UK effort to attack Iraq was so absurd that it’s perfect fodder for a comedy. The Oscar-nominated film is a satire of the Anglo-American diplomatic wrangling in the lead-up to the war. We speak to In the Loop director and co-writer Armando Iannucci. [includes rush transcript]
Our guests, George Monbiot, columnist with The Guardian, in Oxford, and Armando Iannucci, who is the writer and director of In the Loop, which we’re going to turn to right now. We’re going to turn to this clip: a British cabinet minister has just committed what becomes a major gaffe. He’s publicly declared that a US-British military attack is, quote, "unforeseeable." That comment is somehow widely misinterpreted to mean "inevitable." Here, the cabinet minister, Simon Foster, is confronted by reporters about his statement.
SIMON FOSTER: I really, really hope there is no war. It’s going to be a nightmare. It’s bad enough having to cope with the [expletive] Olympics.
REPORTER 1: Minister!
MINISTER’S AIDE: This is your chance to name the line.
SIMON FOSTER: OK.
MINISTER’S AIDE: Do you want to name the line?
SIMON FOSTER: Wait a minute. I’ll freestyle it. Hello there. Hi.
REPORTER 1: So, is war “unforeseeable,” Minister?
SIMON FOSTER: Look, all sorts of things that are actually very likely are also unforeseeable. For the plane in the fog, the mountain is unforeseeable, but then it is suddenly very real and inevitable.
REPORTER 2: Right.
REPORTER 1: Is this your opinion, or is this the government position?
SIMON FOSTER: The mountain in the metaphor is a completely hypothetical mountain that could represent anything.
REPORTER 2: Sorry, Minister. I’m unclear what it — yeah.
REPORTER 1: Who’s the plane, and who’s the mountain?
REPORTER 3: What arm of the government is lost in the fog?
SIMON FOSTER: What I’m saying is that to walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict. Thank you so much.
REPORTER 3: Will you be climbing the mountain alone, Minister?
“The mountain of conflict,” which becomes a bumper sticker throughout the United States, especially among the pro-war group here.
Armando Iannucci, welcome to Democracy Now!
Tell us about Simon Foster and In the Loop, in general.
Well, that little phrase —
And congratulations, by the way, for being nominated for an Oscar.
Thank you very much.
That little phrase was really based on — not long after the actual invasion of Iraq, our Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was on a radio interview being asked about speculation about invading Iran, and he said invading Iran — military conflict with Iran was “inconceivable.” And then he appeared on the same radio show three days later and said, “When I said ‘inconceivable,’ I mean currently inconceivable. It might be conceivable to think of a time in the future where it might be not be inconceivable.” But clearly something happened in those three days. He was hauled in by the backroom bully boys at Downing Street and told he wasn’t toeing the government line. And I just thought that was fascinating. I want to know what happened in those three days. So that was really the starting point of the film.
The film is — it’s a fiction. We don’t say the country. We don’t say who the prime minister is or who the US president is. But it’s about a prime minister and a president wanting to go to war in the Middle East. We never see them, but we see the sort of the middle management politicians, the junior ministers and all the backroom staff in the State Department, the Pentagon and in London, all of whom have some difficulties with what’s happening, but very few of whom actually do anything about it. And we see how really it’s the buildup of the inaction of all the little people that leads to something major happening.
Let’s turn to another clip. Here, the cabinet minister, Simon Foster, has been told the British prime minister has decided to support a military attack in the Middle East. Foster tries to object to the prime minister’s communications director, Malcolm Tucker.
SIMON FOSTER: OK, so this is all going to spin along from here, and we’re going to have a vote, and we’re going to go to war, and we’re going to fight people, and we’re going to kill them, and our children are going to get killed. And this is exactly the sort of thing that I didn’t want to do when I went into politics. This is the opposite of what I wanted to be doing.
MALCOLM TUCKER: Well, that’s exactly why you have to stay in government, so you can influence things. You get in here, you can influence things, you can delay things. Out there, you’re just going to be another [expletive] mouthy, [expletive] shouting mad [expletive] who people don’t want to make eye contact with. Remember Mary? Remember what happened to her? She took a stand on health. Everybody decided that she was mental.
SIMON FOSTER: Because The Sun showed a picture of her with wide eyes and her head on a cow!
MALCOLM TUCKER: Yeah, but I happen to find that that was a particularly powerful image. Look, the prime minister of this country, right, he’s not a [expletive] Viking, is he? He doesn’t drink blood. He doesn’t go around biting tramps.
SIMON FOSTER: I know the Prime Minister isn’t a Viking, Malcolm.
MALCOLM TUCKER: Unlike me, he abhors physical violence.
It was very hard to find even a line there not to beep out when it came to Malcolm Tucker —
Yes, [inaudible] there.
— who is the spokesperson for the prime minister. Who is he modeled on?
Well, he’s modeled on lots of people. There’s a bit of Alastair Campbell there, who was Blair’s communications director throughout the course of the war.
Who ultimately left.
Who left not long after the war, but was in front of the Chilcot inquiry a couple of weeks ago and said that he absolutely backed everything that they did. He watched the film, actually, and said it bore no relation to reality whatsoever. And he kept citing little instants within the film that were foolish and cartoonish, and they were all instants that actually happened, that were based on —
Oh, there’s a whole story line about a committee that the hawks in the White House set up called the — they give a very boring title, it’s called the Future Planning Committee. What it’s really about, it’s really the war committee. And they try and keep it secret, but soon every senator on the Hill who wants a career in foreign affairs finds out about it, and so there’s this tiny room filled with about fifty people.
I want to go to Washington. Let’s go to another clip. This scene takes place at the State Department in DC. A pro-war neoconservative State Department official named Linton Barwick meets with an aide, who informs him that this secret war planning committee you’re talking about was mistakenly exposed in Britain.
LINTON BARWICK: What else happened in London?
AIDE: Generally positive. Two glitches.
LINTON BARWICK: Really? What?
AIDE: Karen flagged a report by one of her staffers.
LINTON BARWICK: Really?
AIDE: She’s obviously trying to use it as some kind of roadblock. It’s called a “pwip pip.”
LINTON BARWICK: “Pwip” what?
AIDE: Pwip pip.
LINTON BARWICK: What is it? A report on bird calls? What does it even stand for?
AIDE: I can’t recall. But it’s fact. It’s intel for and against intervention.
LINTON BARWICK: We have all the facts on this we need. We don’t need any more facts. In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is the king. Alright, you said there was something else. What is that?
AIDE: In the meeting with the Foreign Office, the committee was accidentally and briefly alluded to.
LINTON BARWICK: Which committee?
AIDE: The war committee, sir.
LINTON BARWICK: Alright, Karen is not to know about this, huh? She is an excitable, yapping she-dog. Alright, we’ve got to get a hold of those minutes. I have to correct the record.
AIDE: We can do that?
LINTON BARWICK: Yes, we can. Those minutes are an aide-mémoire for us. They should not be a reductive record of what happened to have been said, but they should be a more full record of what was intended to have been said. I think that’s the more accurate version, don’t you?
Linton Barwick was his name, this neocon official.
Who was he modeled on?
Well, David Rasche, the actor there, watched lots of tapes of Donald Rumsfeld at his peak, at his best, and also Bolton and Wolfowitz, the sort of neocon who is sort of passive-aggressive. They don’t shout, they don’t swear, they don’t stomp their feet, but they have an absolute certainty in their own conviction and rightness. They don’t even — they’re not even conservative. Somebody disagrees with them, rather than try and argue with them, they’ll just ignore them, because that person, by disagreeing with them, has ceased to be human. It’s that level of rudeness. I spoke to someone at the UN who said that they found Bolton was the rudest man they had ever met, and not because he shouted and swore, but because he just walked through people.
In this scene, well, it lampoons both homophobia in the US military and the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence to build the case for invading Iraq and involves two high-level Americans opposed to the Iraq war, a State Department official played by Karen Clarke [sic] and a troubled military general played by James Gandolfini.
KAREN CLARKE: So you read Liza’s paper, I guess.
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: Yeah. I’m a voracious reader. I am the Gore Vidal of the Pentagon.
KAREN CLARKE: Gore is gay.
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: No, he’s not.
KAREN CLARKE: I beg to differ, but —
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: He’s gay? Because I’ve been saying the Gore Vidal line.
KAREN CLARKE: He is gay.
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: Guess I better stop saying that then. That’s ridiculous. The case against war is far stronger than the case for war, and the case for war is caveated all to hell. I mean, look at this. “Most analysts believe the state is looking to expand aggressively beyond its borders.” But then you look down at the caveats, the only source is “Iceman.”
KAREN CLARKE: Exactly.
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: A possible alcoholic. He probably does ten bags of methamphetamine a day, the Iceman.
KAREN CLARKE: If he even exists.
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: The INR says we can’t trust him. We’re disputing our own intelligence here.
KAREN CLARKE: I know.
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: Somebody should leak this, you know.
KAREN CLARKE: When do you want to leak it?
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: Me?
KAREN CLARKE: Isn’t that what you were suggesting?
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: No!
KAREN CLARKE: Well, you don’t have to say that it came from you.
LT. GEN. GEORGE MILLER: No, I’m not leaking it.
Roz looks good today.
I mean, has Linton read this thing?
KAREN CLARKE: I don’t think Linton reads.
That was — well, the general was General Miller played by James Gandolfini. And Karen Clarke was the character in this comedy, the State Department official played by Mimi Kennedy. Tell us a little more about her and about the general.
Well, General Miller, James Gandolfini often went off and did — went off to the Pentagon. Being James Gandolfini, he can ring anyone up and ask if he could come and see them, and they all go, “Yes.” So he went to the Pentagon, and he just watched their behavior and their mannerisms and so on. And there is a line later in the film where someone asks him if he’s ever killed anybody. So James thought he ought to ask these five-star generals if they had ever killed anyone. And he said their reactions were quite good, because they would go, “Have I ever killed anyone? Um, Tom, have I ever killed anyone? Yeah, yes, I have. Yes.”
And a lot of the film, you know, we make fun, there’s gags, there’s jokes, and there’s this sort of sharp, witty dialogue. But an awful lot of it is based on research that we, as writers, did, or I did as the director, and some of the cast did. And we came back with stories like the committee story, like the general’s behavior, like the fact that Washington is really run by a lot of very smart twenty-three-year-olds. You know, we met a twenty-two-year-old who went out to Baghdad not long after the invasion to help draw up the constitution. So he doesn’t know how to buy and sell his own house, but he can tell another country how to run itself. That sort of thing, and we just fed them into this story.
Armando Iannucci, what about your decision to, well, use comedy to portray the lead-up to the invasion?
Well, I think — you see, I think you don’t make light of a subject or demean it by treating it through the medium of comedy, really. I think comedy just allows you the opportunity to come at it from every conceivable and unexpected angle. And what I felt was, you know, the more I read and then investigated what actually was going on — the dysfunction within the different departments in Washington; the fact that the Pentagon wouldn’t speak to the State Department; the fact that Donald Rumsfeld, when he was recruiting people to run Iraq, asked them if they spoke Arabic, and if they said yes, he would say, “Well, you can’t go, because the fact you can speak Arabic shows you have pro-Arab tendencies,” that sort of thing — either you throw hands up in despair or else you think, “This is a farce.” And the only way I could deal with it was through the medium of screwball comedy.
But as I say, underneath it all, there is this — you know, we were very keen to make sure that it was underpinned by reality and stuff that we knew and you knew and, you know, anyone who knew anyone who had worked in Washington knew, but for some reason wasn’t out there.
We got an interesting reaction. The film came out here in June and July. We did a screening in Washington. We got lots of Washington insiders in. They laughed throughout. They laughed at things most people don’t laugh at, just like the way people pull up and sit down on chairs, because they kind of realized that’s how they sit down on chairs in Washington. But at the end, at the question-and-answer session, there was a very interesting reaction. It went very quiet, and someone raised their hand and said, “On behalf of everyone in the room, can we just apologize? Because that’s how it happened.” And I thought — you know, I thought, on the one hand, great, we got it right, and on the other hand, great, we got it right, because an awful lot of the stuff in the film is exaggeration, it’s distortion, it’s invention, and then afterwards people come up and tell you that that happened.
George Monbiot, though you had nothing to do with the film, I’m going to give you the last word in Oxford. In Britain, the film has come out in —
In the Loop has come out in Britain, as well. But on this whole lead-up to the war.
Well, it was a fantastic film, and it captured that lead-up very well indeed, because it was just a question of being driven internally by the politics of the two governments, in the US and the UK, rather than being driven by any external factors, like an imminent threat of attack or the need for self-defense against Iraq, both of which, of course, were just preposterous ideas. It just was not happening. And I think what Armando captured so beautifully was the way that internal political dynamic operates and drives forward a process which has got no basis for reality in the outside world at all. And we’re now seeing the fallout of that at the Chilcot inquiry, but we need to take it a step further, and we need to see the authors of that unnecessary and devastating war brought to justice. And that’s why I’m calling on people to carry out citizen’s arrests to put pressure on the authorities to ensure that justice is eventually done.
We’re going to leave it there. George Monbiot is the columnist for The Guardian newspaper. Arrestblair.org is his website. And thank you so much to Armando Iannucci. Congratulations on your Oscar nomination, In the Loop.
Thanks very much.