Who dares to face down Malcolm Tucker? By 2009, Peter Capaldi’s tartan terror had been blazing through the halls of Westminster for four years – obliterating all who unknowingly stumbled into his path. His reign of terror in Number 10 seemed to be without end.
Who better to take on the head of the Caledonian Mafia than Tony Soprano himself? To transplant Tucker onto the big screen and ship him Stateside for In the Loop – Armando Iannucci’s inimitable spinoff to The Thick of It – he needs rivals worthy of his towering reputation.
Enter the late, great James Gandolfini, whose stoic turn as Lieutenant General George Miller may be the standout in a political comedy as black as night and as perfect as it gets.
“This is the problem with civilians wanting to go to war. Once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, you never want to go again unless you absolutely fucking have to.
“It’s like France.”
A war satire fought entirely with words – most of them too blue for tender ears – In the Loop is a film where pacifists become warmongers and incompetents become backstabbers. Like its parent show, its characters’ innocence and optimism were chewed up and spat out long ago. Westminster and DC are rife with cynics out for themselves.
What makes Miller so special is that he doesn’t want to go to war, and his pacifism is for its own sake. As the other players jump ship or swaps sides as suits their own needs, Miller is the only one serving a higher purpose than himself. While phrases like “climbing the mountain of conflict” are bandied about and fervour for military intervention in the Middle East reaches fever pitch, Miller is the only one who’s actually been to war and knows what armed combat means for the boots on the ground.
Gandolfini plays this pain as a quiet grace note echoing around the edges of his gruff, unassuming performance. It’s only made explicit once in a short speech to Mimi Kennedy’s Secretary of State Karen Clark (above). Otherwise it’s dancing along the seething grin that spreads across his face when he comes toe-to-toe with political schemers who see war in stats and maps rather than people.
While this sort of complex character work is Gandolfini’s bread and butter, he’d never used it to such explosively comedic effect before. A touchstone for most viewers would be his defining role in HBO’s seminal mafia drama. Tony Soprano battles with demons and trauma untold, addled with regret and paranoia from a life of violence. Gandolfini was a master at conveying this in the tiniest tic and he only needed to lightly skew this well-honed talent to craft comedy gold as Miller.
Iannucci uses Gandolfini’s rep as a hard man with hidden depths brilliantly in an early scene where Miller and Clark hide away in a little girl’s bedroom to scheme a way to prevent war. Whispering conspiracies and rumours, Miller tries to calculate how many troops the US has at its disposal. The only tool to hand is an adorable, pink toy calculator. Gandolfini’s hulking frame hunches over the tiny device, punching in numbers of destructive significance that are chirped back in a whimsical, cartoon fairy voice. Miller’s exasperated persistence in ignoring the absurdity of the scene is a devastatingly hilarious showcase of Gandolfini and Iannucci’s combined genius.
Somehow, Gandolfini managed to make his unassuming work outshine a gut-busting roster of dialled-to-11 comedic performances. Tom Hollander flusters and stutters up a storm. Anna Chlumsky balances grating hyper-competence, brow-beaten exasperation and desperate confusion, as she would later in Iannucci’s equally excellent Veep. Steve Coogan throws his hat into the ring with a tremendous turn as an outraged busybody in Hollander’s Northampton constituency – dragging glamorous scenes of US intrigue back to earth with classically British mundanity.
None leap from the screen more clearly than Capaldi and his deformed, terrifying take on the Alastair Campbell archetype. At the film’s climax, war is voted through at the UN, and a triumphant Tucker squares up to a quietly outraged Miller. Tucker is his usual firestorm of swear words and insults – he gets on one of his best offensives, volleying vitriol at Miller with a quiet but uncontrollable fury.
But, in a moment of pure, elating retribution, Gandolfini gets to rattle off the deepest, coldest and most impactful dressing-down that Malcolm Tucker would ever receive. It’s never topped in the two remaining Thick of It seasons that would follow the movie:
“Look, Tucker, you might be some scary little poodle fucker over in England, but out here you’re nothing. You know what you look like? A squeezed dick. You got a big blue vein running up your head all the way to the temple. See, that’s where I’d put the bullet. Only I’d have to stand back ’cause you look like a squirter.”
With the sorrow and rage of a man who has nothing left to lose, combined with a cool, calculated malice akin to Gandolfini’s terrifying turn as mob goon Virgil in Tony Scott’s True Romance, Miller goes out all guns blazing and it’s a joy to behold.
Once the dust has settled, the winners and losers all resign themselves to roles they were desperately trying to avoid. As plotters and schemers shuffle offstage, Gandolfini gets in the last jab while dejectedly dragging on a cigarette in the UN canteen. Hounded by Chris Addison’s snivelling Toby, he cuts the snake off short with a simple “Go fuck yourself, Frodo.” It’s the perfect, understated sign-off for the quiet voice that won the world’s most violent shouting match.