Political coup

Wag the Dog paints the White House a brilliant black

Motss is a comic grotesque and a pain, but he's also a never-say-die guy. When circumstances and enemies conspire to cut short his glorious war before the final act, he quickly revises the scenario with a postwar crisis, a heroic aftermath, a homecoming, and a memorial. He sees the life of a producer as that of a "samurai warrior," in constant preparation for catastrophe.

Probably the most generous aspect of the movie is its view of show-biz competence. The squad Motss assembles--the clothes designer Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin), the gimmick-master known as the Fad King (Denis Leary), and the country-music star Johnny Green (Willie Nelson)--is able to trick up street couture, sales hooks, and theme songs for every occasion. These people are super-shrewd; they're also narcissistic. Indeed, from the moment we hear him calling for a veggie shake from inside his tomb-like tanning chamber, Motss is the artificial Sun King of solipsism. And the members of his crew reflect him in their loony, self-centered professionalism. After all, when they cook up their phony war, they're not following orders--they're merely fulfilling an assignment. There's a wonderful tableau of Motss, Butsky, and the Fad King discussing their limited political involvement. Motss says he votes only for Oscars; the Fad King once cast a ballot for the baseball All-Star team; and Butsky says she never votes because the booths make her feel too claustrophobic.

Of course, part of what makes the film so entertaining is its own astounding professionalism. Shot in only a month, it has a distinctive low-key crackle. Unlike most stage or screen directors (including Mamet himself), Levinson knows how to enrich Mamet's staccato dialogue with emotion and fluidity without losing its pointedness and punch. Mamet nails the characterizations, and Levinson lets his verbiage marinate in the actors' own vital juices. The result is a thrillingly energized comic ensemble.

Performers like Heche and Leary, who have been overly strident on-screen, jump out in a good way--on the strength of their bursting talent. Heche, in particular, is like a two-fisted Alice in a violently booby-trapped Wonderland, graduating with monomaniacal verve from Brean's sidekick and helpmate to his partner. With the collaboration of Oliver Stone's usual cinematographer, Robert Richardson, Levinson has cleverly varied the texture of the movie, exploiting the changes in setting and in media for a tingling visual-polyglot effect. The sequence of Motss and his techies conjuring a wartime atrocity out of staged and stock footage is a marvel of prestidigitation.

My favorite moments shoot out from the loving portraiture of the actors. Ejaculating and flailing at the military men who've dropped a dangerous mental patient (the ineffable Woody Harrelson) in her hands, Heche is all knees and elbows. Willie Nelson and Roebuck "Pops" Staples communicate through wrinkled brows while strumming up a "folk" song. (The music is aptly and sometimes infuriatingly catchy, all by itself an example of political kitsch skillfully imitating art.) And even when she's just standing around a table, Andrea Martin lets her proud profile jut out like the figurehead of a ship.

By now, the vocabularies of politics and entertainment have grown so close that they're interchangeable. John Podhoretz called his laser-sharp book about the Bush administration Hell of a Ride--and that's the phrase Brean and Motss use to describe their mock-Adriatic media adventure. Luckily, Wag the Dog is more than a hell of a ride. If as a political satire it ranks with Altman's Tanner series, as a show-biz satire it outstrips Altman's The Player. It makes sense that Wag the Dog plays well in trailer form. When Motss realizes that he has to sustain the illusion of war for just 11 days, he calls it "a teaser." The whole movie is like a coming attraction for a hazardous future. It starts in the realm of ballyhoo and hokum; by the end it draws real blood.

Wag the Dog.
Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, from the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart. Starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, and Andrea Martin. Opens Friday.

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