It’s usually a bad idea to take a successful TV comedy act and transfer it to the cinema. For a start, and to state an obvious fact that is all to often overlooked, TV and cinema are different media. Why do so few people seem to realise that it takes a different set of gifts to arrange a 90 minute film as opposed to a 30 minute TV show? They are, of course, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but it should be obvious that they are different. Many fine careers have lost their luster too soon on the alter of a quick cinematic buck.
All praise, then, to Armando Iannucci. He’s long been a treasure of the British comic/satirical scene on television and the radio. His career has been a long way short of perfect, but then he’s never failed for want of trying. When he gets it right, though, he gets it very right. Exhibit One: The Thick Of It – a political satire with the documentary approach of The Office, tucked away on the BBC’s least popular digital channel. It’s a merciless, brilliant but strangely compassionate deconstruction of politics in the era of spin. The key figure is the utterly foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, a spin doctor and political manipulator who in no way resembles anyone you may have heard of. The swearing was, of course, never the point. It was too convoluted to ever be truly offensive, and over time built up a character of utter believability.
Brilliant as the programme is, to take it to the cinema was a big step – even bigger was to do what so many British programmes do in maniacal desire to make it big, and go to America. That’s what happens here, as we go behind the scenes of UN and trans-Atlantic diplomacy in the run-up to a war in the Middle East.
Over the running time of a film, there is perhaps inevitably the occasional slow patch. But that this is one of the best comedies in many years is down, as ever to performances and writing. The cast from the television do a fine job; the American guests are outstanding, especially James Galdofini in his best cinema role. His is a performance of outstanding depth and complexity, with so much suggested in a lowering of the eyes that it simply seems impossible.
The film’s other great strength is to treat the characters as real people. It’s an angry film, to be sure – as one would hope. But in showing us people in positions of power who find themselves unable or unwilling to follow through on their own integrity, you’re left with the overwhelming sense of ‘Would I really have done any differently?’. The dilemmas they face are real; that’s no excuse, it’s clear – but it allows us no easy rush to judgement, no simplistic ‘Not in my name’. The film’s brilliance is to make us laugh as much at our own moral weakness as at the weakness of those in power. It undercuts our anger and asks questions of ourselves, putting the viewer in the court of public opinion.
This is a daring thing to do, but surely it’s the right, sane thing to do. It makes me think about a man who spoke about logs, specks and eyes. The Bible tells us that God will hold leaders to a higher standard. That, though, is His job; not mine, as much as I would love it to be. I have the ballot box; but I also need to examine my own willingness to take a stand when it really matters, when it will really cost me, personally. Dare I be so quick to rush to judgement now?