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Armando Iannucci: Political Satirist

Satirist in chief
Kevin Scanlon

When Glasgow-born, London-based satirist Armando Iannucci was assembling his knife-edged political comedy In the Loop, a fictionalized account of how bureaucratic folly and queasy alliances bring England and America stumbling toward a wretched military misadventure, he made sure to get all his research ducks in a row. Having grown up a political junkie, he was already familiar with the ins and outs of Parliament. He’d also co-written and directed the acclaimed BBC sitcom about Whitehall shenanigans, The Thick of It, to which In the Loop, is something of a spiritual cousin. But to get details of the inner workings of Washington, D.C., Iannucci hopped the Pond.

“I met Senate staffers, people in the CIA, the Pentagon, the U.N., and the State Department,” Iannucci told me in his management offices in London’s Soho Square earlier this year. What he learned hardly needed comic embellishment: secret war committees whose names are changed to keep the wrong (read: antiwar) people out; 22-year-olds running big budgets and high-level meetings; spineless dissenters who never speak up when they should, and what’s called “bladder diplomacy.”

“When she was secretary of state, Madeleine Albright taught her staff how to last in a meeting up to six hours without having to go to the bathroom,” he says. “People told us the golden rule is, if you leave the room, you leave power.”

Iannucci, a compact, balding man of 45, who could easily be mistaken for an accountant, even found himself the star of his own farcical moment when he managed to get into the Department of State offices with a homemade badge bearing just his name and picture: no bar code, nothing to swipe. “Someone came up to [me and] my researcher and said, ‘Excuse me, can I help you?’ I said, ‘I’m here for the 12:30,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s just down there.’ It was the daily press briefing. But we wandered around taking photographs for our art department. I remember thinking, ‘This is possibly espionage.’ ”

In the Loop boasts a similarly off-the-cuff vibe, with Iannucci’s camera shadowing his Anglo-American cast as they worry into cell phones while walking down the street, make asides in packed rooms, or bark and pace during closed-door sessions. They include Tom Hollander as a foot-in-mouth cabinet minister whose casual remark on a British interview show that war is “unforeseen” sets the film in motion; Anna Chlumsky as a scrappy diplomatic aide and author of a hotly debated antiwar brief; David Rasche as a Rumsfeldian U.S. hawk; and James Gandolfini as a coarse, war-weary American general. “We light everything so the actors can go anywhere, and we have two cameras on all the time,” says Iannucci, whose primary concern was capturing funny moments in as real a way as possible. “Even if the actors are offscreen, we’re recording them.”

Peter Capaldi, the Thick of Italumwho memorably reprises his role as the prime minister’s chief spin-meister, Malcolm Tucker — a predatory Jeeves mopping up others’ messes while hurling fetid bouquets of hilariously foul-mouthed invective — says Iannucci’s shooting method, originally devised for the series, liberates an actor. “You never know whether you’re in a tight shot or a wide shot, so there’s no modulating your performance,” he told me recently by phone during a break from filming new episodes. “You’ve just got to be truthful, even if it’s wildly over the top.”

Iannucci is quick to point out that it’s not the Iraq War he’s making fun of with In the Loop — no Middle Eastern country is ever named — but the childishness of personal vendettas and responsibility-shirking that allowed the run-up to happen. It’s why he figured the story was consequential — and catastrophically funny — enough to warrant a big-screen treatment. “I was deliberately structuring it like a screwball comedy, thinking back to Preston Sturges,” says Iannucci, who was also inspired by the naturalism of Robert Altman films and Robert Redford’s 1972 senate-campaign satire, The Candidate. “You’ve got these two sets of people on opposite sides of the Atlantic for the first half, then one comes over, and it all climaxes at the U.N., with everyone running around. It’s like the Marx Brothers but covered with the realism and awfulness of the situation.”

In Britain, Iannucci is a treasured humorist across the media: newspaper columns, radio, television and, recently, the libretto for an opera lampooning plastic surgery. He is considered one of the architects of the embarrassment-comedy wave that gave birth to The Office and, with help from star Steve Coogan, the failed-TV-host character Alan Partridge. He also created, narrated and starred in a wistfully wry and absurd autobiographical sketch series called The Armando Iannucci Shows, which made light of his many neuroses about modern life. Iannucci attributes his observant brand of humor to being raised as both Scottish and Italian and never feeling fully one or the other. “If you went to something Scottish, like a country dance, you’d think, ‘This is a bit strange,’ ” he says. “But then [at] a big Italian first communion, you’d think, ‘This is strange, as well.’ ”

It’s only natural, then, that Iannucci’s antennae were quickly attuned to the comedic possibilities of the spin-dominant political age. For years, the apex of British political satire were the Thatcher-era BBC series Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, about a do-gooder politician gamed into doing nothing by his status quo–minded top bureaucrat. Iannucci’s The Thick of It, however, earned its bona fides by dragging the quandary of activist government into the blitzkrieg news-cycle age, when affecting change can’t compete with image management. “[In our show] people are scared of doing anything because it might come back to haunt them,” says Iannucci of his characters’ blood pressure–raising concerns. “They’re also scared of saying anything because then they have to unsay it. It’s damage control.”

And nobody wants to upset Malcolm Tucker. Capaldi agrees that it was easy for Britons to see a connection between his vituperative character and Tony Blair’s notoriously tough, vulgar communications director, Alastair Campbell (he of the famous “sexed-up” Iraq War dossier). But Capaldi, whom American audiences may recognize from Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero, says he had others in mind when introduced to Malcolm during the genesis of The Thick of It back in 2004. “I was given this script with this character who was very volatile, very verbal and aggressive, and the only people I knew who were like that were American agents and producers,” Capaldi says. “Alastair likes to think it was him.”

Suddenly Capaldi seems stricken by the very fear his character inspires in others. “I have to be careful because if I say the wrong thing, [Alastair will] pursue me to the grave.” He pauses. “I can’t even say that! I didn’t say that. That didn’t happen.”

Ironically, though, in the U.K., where The Thick of It has won numerous awards and In the Loop has been a box-office hit, Iannucci’s venal, craven, government press officers have been eagerly embraced by their real-life counterparts. On the day the In the Loop crew filmed Capaldi emerging from the real Downing Street home of the prime minister, “all the Malcolms in No. 10 came with their cameras because they wanted to take a photo of themselves next to Peter,” says Iannucci. “And I’m thinking, ‘Don’t you realize we’re saying that you’re shits?’ But they’re happy to acknowledge it.”

In the Loop opens on Friday, July 24 in Los Angeles theaters.