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"In the Loop," is a British political satire that takes place during the lead up to the current war in Iraq. It's a comedic, behind-the-scenes look at how the American and British governments prepared for war. It's from the writers and director of a British TV comedy called "In the Thick of It," and features, among many others, James Gandolfini as an American general. It opens today in limited release and can be seen on pay-per-view cable beginning next week. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: With its wild machinations, the riotously potty-mouthed British political satire "In the Loop" seems totally outlandish. But according to some reports, it's more or less what happened in the days leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Brits were indeed drafted to supply intelligence to help the administration make its case to the U.N. Security Council. And, according to a leaked Downing Street memo, intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. Inspired by that memo, director Armando Ianucci has concocted a rollicking, transcontinental farce, a policy-wonk version of the front page, with characters flying back and forth between London and Washington and enough four-letter scatological invective to make David Mamet say, whoa, that's a tad excessive.

You'll be laughing so hard you might not notice the undercurrent of horror creeping in. The movie uses characters from Ianucci's Brit TV comedy "In the Thick of It," starring the Scottish Peter Capaldi as a relentlessly abusive government press secretary named Malcolm Tucker and based on Alastair Campbell, who did the job for Tony Blair. As the film opens, he's listening to a radio interview with a minor government minister named Simon Foster, played by Tom Hollander. And Simon stammers something about the war in the Middle East being, quote, "unforeseeable." And as harmless as that locution seems, it drives the Prime Minister, who goes unnamed, and his executioner, Malcolm, into obscenity-laced fits of apoplexy.

Here's Malcolm with Hollander's Simon and Gina McKee as his Press Secretary, and a new young spin doctor Toby, played by Chris Addison.

(Soundbite of movie, "In the Loop")

Mr. PETER CAPALDI (Actor): (as Malcolm) Are you saying I'm now no longer allowed to make media appearances?

Mr. TOM HOLLANDER (Actor): (as Simon) Correct, not until we can trust you to keep the line.

Mr. CAPALDI: (as Malcolm) Hmm. I was going to keep to the line. I was going to say, I don't think war is unforeseeable.

Mr. HOLLANDER: (as Simon) What is it then?

Mr. CAPALDI: (as Malcolm) I don't know. Foreseeable?

Mr. HOLLANDER: (as Simon) No.

Mr. CAPALDI: (as Malcolm) No. Not foreseeable that's (bleep) declaring war. You want to (bleep) declare war? I'm the cabinet minister. Yeah, I didn't get here by screwing up every media appearance I ever had.

Mr. CHRIS ADDISON (Actor): (as Toby) Write this down: It's neither foreseeable nor unforeseeable.

Mr. HOLLANDER: (as Simon) Right. So, not inevitable, but not…

Mr. CAPALDI: (as Malcolm) You better work on this (bleep) line, evitable.

Mr. ADDISON: (as Toby) You, hey…

Mr. CAPALDI: (as Malcolm) Put the snifter out there. The BBC ambushes our minister with another surprise question about the war, I'll drop a bomb on them.

Ms. GINA MCKEE (Actor): (as Judy) Well, I can't do that, can I?

Mr. CAPALDI: (as Malcolm) Oh, does that not, does that not fit within your purview, Marie Antoinette? Well, listen, why don't you just scuttle off back (bleep) Cranford and play around with your tea and you're cakes and you're (bleep) horsecocks. Let them eat cock. Hey you, Ron Weasley, you do it.

EDELSTEIN: You'd hardly recognize Capaldi from his most famous movie role as Peter Riegert's lovelorn Scottish assistant in the sublime 1983 comedy "Local Hero." The cords in his neck stand out as he roars, and he shows up everywhere, fulminating, threatening, blackballing, blackmailing. Against him, idealists don't stand a chance, and neither does Simon, who tries to back-peddle from that unforeseeable line but who does like the attention. He gets drafted as an ally by the dovish U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke, played by Mimi Kennedy, who's locked in a battle with the hawkish State department official Linton Barwick, based on top Cheney aide David Addington, and played with delicious smug pomposity, by David Rasche.

The movie is crammed with characters and details, the actors playing it straight but at farcical speeds, leaping back and forth from the minutiae of protocol, to problems with their teeth, to one-night stands, to leaking documents or plugging leaks. "In the Loop's" loopy ensemble includes the pert Anna Chlumsky as Clark's policy aide, who drafts a highly inconvenient paper on the prospect of war in which the cons far outweigh the pros, and James Gandolfini as an alpha-male general, who's nonetheless dead-set against war - he's the only one who's seen soldiers die.

They're all stupendous, but it's Mimi Kennedy, best known as Dharma's mom on the sitcom "Dharma and Greg," who blew me away. She has the doggedness of a true political animal, she has ideals but she knows how the game must be played.

Some critics have suggested that "In the Loop" is too cynical, too committed to the idea that politicians and policymakers are either hopelessly ineffectual or downright venal. But I would submit that the lead-in to the war in Iraq was an extraordinary case, a moment when almost no one in retrospect looks good. And the filmmakers don't depict the principle architects or even mention Blair, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or Colin Powell by name. Instead, we see their minions in a kind of kabuki ritual, going through the motions, the conclusion predetermined. "In the Loop" demonstrates how penetrating farce can be: madcap on the surface, brutally sane beneath.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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