Political coup

Wag the Dog paints the White House a brilliant black

When was the last time the audience applauded a trailer and the movie lived up to it? Independence Day enticed millions with its preview shot of the White House blown to smithereens, but that film was a dumb, elephantine sci-fi pastiche. The trailer for Wag the Dog, a far more accurate reflection of its finished movie, has been winning cheers and laughs for demolishing the White House--with satire.

In this film's twisted game plan, presidential aides concoct an election-eve straight-to-video war with Albania to torpedo charges that their boss improperly touched a teenage girl. The preview audience instantly sees the logic of Hollywood and Washington working together to create that greatest of political diversions: an international crisis. And the complete movie is better than the trailer. It's a scintillating political lampoon, as ticklishly precise as Robert Altman's HBO series Tanner '88. Director Barry Levinson has given this swift, sure-footed film a matter-of-fact, improvisational look and feel. To appreciate its brisk, confident, wild comedy, all you need is a funny bone and a BS meter. It should appeal equally to the American voters who always end up feeling hoodwinked and to the slackers and protesters who don't vote.

Levinson's best movie since Diner has a premise in some ways as old as the 1978 thriller Capricorn One, about a manned flight to Mars that turned out to be staged. In Wag the Dog--co-written by Hilary Henkin and playwright-director David Mamet, based on Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero--the event that's faked is a war, but the process that's being dummied up is American democracy, and the victim is the American community. Yet the movie doesn't become a heavy-handed, moralistic fable; it remains a waggish tale, not a finger-wagging horror. Levinson takes viewers so far inside his satiric vision of a Beltway-to-Bel Air image-making corps that it's hard not to get caught up in the team spirit. The movie says that this is the only genuine spirit left in America--and it threatens to leave actual corpses in its wake.

After a Camp Fire Girl-like teen blows the whistle on the president's Oval Office misconduct, D.C. spin doctor Connie Brean (Robert De Niro) decides that the chief executive needs to galvanize support for a Gulf War-ish conflict, albeit in tiny, mysterious Albania, which is suitably "shifty, standoffish." (Speaking of mystery: We never see the president's face--only his back.) Brean knows that what Americans recall from past wars are images, slogans, merchandising; his plan is to deliver that stuff on the airwaves. That's where Dustin Hoffman comes in. Brean and presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) enlist legendary Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (the t is usually silent), played by Hoffman, to craft a scenario of terrorism in Albania and a suitcase bomb coming in through Canada to gear the country up for war.

What's original about the movie's take on the spin doctor, Brean, is that he isn't a James Carville or Lee Atwater. Brean scarcely projects any personality, much less a colorful one, and he won't take any credit for his successes--he just wants to do his job and disappear. He's the political functionary for an age when no one plays the posterity game--when everybody realizes that the country's attention span has shrunk to minutes and that the memory bank is depleted too. All he cares about is results; all he cherishes is his professional reputation.

If Jerry Seinfeld is the comedian of nothing, Brean is nothing's kingpin. In the movie's early going, when he advises the president's men (and women) to plant questions about Albania in the press and then "Deny, deny, deny!" he could be counseling Bush on Irangate or James Cameron on the troubles of Titanic. But there's one huge difference: Brean urges his clients to deny a controversy that doesn't exist and then, when it's been fabricated, fess up to it.

De Niro comes up with his canniest performance since his sizzling cameo a dozen years ago in Terry Gilliam's Brazil; he transforms Brean's combination of observance and recession into a treasure trove of comic surprises, as well as a font of evil wisdom. At one point a CIA agent (played by William H. Macy) figures out the scam--"Two things I know to be true," he says. "There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war." Macy does one of his riotous deadpan specialty numbers as the self-righteous CIA man; in one terse scene, he electrifies the character, giving him the lightning certainty of a human lie detector. But when he faces Brean, the poor guy doesn't know what he's up against. De Niro's understated knowingness envelops all the people around Brean like a hilarious existential blob, whether they're from the CIA or the motion picture academy. While Motss, the Mr. Fix-it of the back lot, responds to setbacks with the high-pitched snarl, "This is a walk in the park," Brean sits back and assumes a browsing position. Actually, he's speed-reading every situation.

What distinguishes Motss the archetypal mogul from Brean the ultimate insider is that Motss wants to leave a legacy: He still believes in history, even if to him it's just the history of motion pictures. Unlike Brean, he hates his anonymity. After all his years in Tinseltown, he's still annoyed that the Academy doesn't give a prize for the best producer (simply accepting the best picture Oscar, as producers traditionally do, wouldn't be enough for Motss), and he's outraged that nobody knows what a producer does. He's not solely an image-maker--he's a showman. Hoffman's acting here may outdo his peak work in Tootsie: He takes a leap of sympathetic imagination with an unsympathetic character, imbuing him with a chunnel-scale tunnel vision and egotism that are simultaneously appalling and grandly touching. Nothing that happens in the universe can compare to the travails he suffered while making movies, such as finishing a new version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after three of the horsemen die.

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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