This is a political satire with the cynical verbal barbs of British humor. I enjoyed it for many reasons which I will explain in this review. It is primarily about spin. By this I mean that the film is mainly about British and American politicians and bureaucrats trying to control the message, threaten their colleagues if they stray from the message, adapt quickly when conditions change and thus the message needs to change, multiple ways to deceive, and ways to cover your fingerprints as you try to turn every situation into a career win rather than a career loss. Sound familiar? Yes, every type of careerist is characterized here but with their weaknesses revealed exponentially.
Peter Capaldi plays the Director of Communications for the British Prime Minister. As such he has to keep the rest of the government on message. Whenever an official in government strays off message, he goes crazy and becomes a threatening profanity filled demon to bring them back in line. Unfortunately for the naïve Secretary of International Development Simon Foster, played perfectly by Tom Hollander, he lets a personal opinion about Mid-east tensions slip in an interview. Simon is a good fellow who is totally over his head in the insane world of cut-throat politics. He plays the role of the gentle fool, he tries to be wise and ends up sounding foolish, and he becomes a ping pall ball in the political discourse as the United States and Great Britain move toward an invasion of an unnamed country. On Simon’s staff is his Communications Director, Judy Malloy, played by the exceptional actress Gina McKee. She also plays Caterina Sforza in the epic series, The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI. If there is a character that may serve as the moral center of the film, the observer of all the chaos and miscommunication, it is Judy Malloy. Her boss is not very supportive, a new understudy is hired for the office, and the Director of Communication for the Prime Minister is openly hostile toward her as if it is her fault that Simon Foster makes idiotic but well meaning comments to the press that are twisted for political ends. Chris Addison plays the new communications assistant in Simon’s office, Toby Wright, and he creates one crisis after another with his careless leaks to the press. There is a wonderful scene where he is caught having a one-night-stand with an old graduate school friend and his excuses and denials provide a miniature example of the spin being practiced by the more senior statesmen in the film.
On the American side of the equation, things are almost as idiotic. Two dueling Assistant Secretaries of State try to continually out play each other as the United States moves toward an invasion of another country. Mimi Kennedy plays Assistant Secretary Clark whose bright young assistant, played by Anna Chlumsky, has done a policy analysis and found many more disadvantages of an invasion compared to advantages. She also has discovered that the British intelligence source, Iceman, is highly unreliable. What is portrayed so well here is that competition exists at multiple layers of organizations with folks most competitive with people at their own level. Mimi Kennedy is outstanding in this film. Her competitor, Assistant Secretary of State for Policy, Linton Barwick, speaks non-sense to continually throw people off his track. He is played by David Rasche. James Gandolfini is also excellent playing the Pentagon general who is trying to protect his career while the pro-war and anti-war forces battle in the policy and press arenas.
In the policy world of leaks to the relentless press, distorted and unreliable intelligence sources, careerism and competition, poor message control, and shifting alliances; this political satire sometimes rings all too true. I admit this film is not for everyone. The cursing by Peter Capaldi, while highly creative and imaginative, is also a bit crude. The dialogue is fast and furious and sometimes due to the British accents is hard to understand. However, as a mini-mirror into the world of policy formation, it is right on the money.