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The Boston Phoenix Biting Satire

Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" barks up the right tree.

By Steve Vineberg

JANUARY 5, 1998: 

WAG THE DOG. Directed by Barry Levinson. Screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. With Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson, Denis Leary, Andrea Martin, and William H. Macy. At the Circle.

The notion that politics is show business is taken to woozy heights in Wag the Dog, Barry Levinson's exhilaratingly swift-paced satire. The title emerges from the movie's epigraph -- "A dog wags its tail because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog" -- and the picture centers on a pair of seasoned dog-waggers. Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is the adviser brought in clandestinely by top presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) to save her boss's re-election campaign after a "Firefly Girl" accuses him of molesting her during a White House tour. Brean's solution is to start a phony war with Albania to take the heat off the president's sexual indiscretion, and Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) is the Hollywood producer Brean hires to stage it.

Working from a juicy script by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet that has Levinson's fingerprints all over it, these three make a joyous grab at the kind of comic roles that invigorate actors. Watching their scenes together is like tuning into a classic three-hander from the '30s with, say, John Barrymore, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell in the leads. Hoffman's Stan Motts, who holds his first meeting with his Washington guests in his private tanning salon, is appalling and endearing, an inspired (and seamless) blend of improvisational energy and self-love. It's a kingpin performance, as definitive in its way as Barrymore's impression of the ego-raging Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century (though Motss's narcissism, unlike Jaffe's, has a sweetly indulgent smile on its burnished face) and as acutely observed as Hoffman's loving burlesque of the Method actor in Tootsie.

A new, improved Robert De Niro understates wittily, the reflexes of his dazzling days as a hotshot young star miraculously restored. Anne Heche comes out from behind the underwritten parts she's been struggling with in movies like Donnie Brasco and earns the right to spar with both these men. Heche gives bright-eyed Winifred Ames, the Washington insider who goes Hollywood, a siege mentality and a sputtering neurotic quality. This is the kind of comedy Judy Davis tried to inject into her role as the chief of staff in the brain-dead White House thriller Absolute Power. Heche is luckier -- she has the material to pull it off.

The movie is about how Brean and Motts, with Ames's collusion, transform every obstacle in their path into an inspiration. It's a series of sketches, every one of them memorable. To rev up public sentiment, Stan hires a fresh-faced young actress (Kirsten Dunst), throws a babushka on her, and as she races across a soundstage, miming terror, he dresses up the screen with computer-controlled images that lift her out of the studio and into the streets of a bombed Albanian village. (The prop in her arms metamorphoses before our eyes into a variety of pet animals, settling on a white cat -- the personal choice of the president himself, who phones it in while he's mobilizing the Sixth Fleet.) Willie Nelson plays the musician who comes up with the anthem for the war ("We love our American borders/We guard the American dream"). Then, when the shrewd senator (Craig T. Nelson) who's running against the president undermines Brean's scheme by "ending" the non-war ("How can he end the war? He's not producing this!" is Stan's incredulous response), he and Motss invent a war hero, a POW, and a new song is written to usher him into folk legend. Woody Harrelson, in a hilarious performance, plays the medicated ex-con hired to give this invention flesh and blood.

Wag the Dog has less fat on its bones than anything Levinson has done since Diner -- he shot it in less than a month, and it shows in all the best ways. And except for his translation of Uncle Vanya (the one Andre Gregory used for Vanya on 42nd Street), this is far and away the best work David Mamet has ever had a hand in. You can hear the Mamet trademarks in the script, but here they're conscious rather than self-conscious. Everyone in Wag the Dog is in on the joke; everyone is in top form, including the composer, Mark Knopfler, and especially the editor, Stu Linder. There isn't a sore thumb in the cast, which includes William H. Macy as a CIA honcho, Denis Leary and a dyspeptic Andrea Martin as Heche's helpmates, Suzie Plakson as Motss's assistant, and, in brilliantly conceived bits, Jim Belushi and Merle Haggard. Simultaneously rapid-fire and relaxed, Wag the Dog is a satire with teeth and a vaudeville spirit.

Wags on the Dog

Hoffman and Levinson on media manipulation and the shape of the President's penis

We know that moviemakers like Robert Zemeckis employ images of real-life politicians for the purposes of their Hollywood fantasies. But do real-life politicians employ Hollywood fantasies for the purposes of their own protection and self-interest? That's the premise of Barry Levinson's satire Wag the Dog, in which a president caught with his pants down has to concoct a phony war to distract public opinion and win an upcoming election.

"When you think of the Gulf War," says Levinson in support of the story's plausibility, "it's not unlike a junket. They took everybody [journalists] over there and they put them in some Quonset hut and they brought them some food to eat and showed them videos. It was a totally controlled world. When I was watching at the time, I remember them saying, 60 days, 2000 missions a day. And I remember thinking: I keep seeing -- which is one of the lines of the film -- that same smart bomb going down that chimney blowing up that factory. That means they've got 120,000 videos of these sorties, how come I don't see at least a couple hundred? I remember saying, you could fake that very easily -- not that they did -- but you could. The people don't see anything, they're in the room, they have the food, they watch the video and someone comes out with a map. But no one saw anything, really."

"Theoretically, anything is possible," says Dustin Hoffman, who in contrast to his portrayal of a journalist exposing a Presidential cover-up in All the President's Men here plays a Hollywood producer who creates one. "We ain't seen nothing yet in terms of computer technology. So theoretically, you can recreate a war. We also know that Vietnam was the last war where the journalists were allowed total freedom and had, for the first time, sophisticated equipment. You could almost simultaneously see what was going on while you were eating dinner. Both Republicans and Democrats said 'We ain't gonna have this happen again.' Grenada, restricted, wasn't it? Gulf War, most restricted. There was video footage from that war made by people hired by a public-relations firm that was working for the administration."

Levinson and Hoffman had a chance to play their own disinformation game with President Clinton himself when they and other cast members met him at a Washington restaurant while shooting the movie.

"We had a nice conversation," Levinson remembers. "It was only when he asked 'What's the movie about?' and we all looked at one another and thought, well, what are we going to say here? Not that he'd be totally offended; he's got a pretty good sense of humor. And Dustin, of course, jumped in and told the story. Not this movie, some other movie. I have no idea what movie he was talking about."

"I don't think we demeaned him in the movie," says Hoffman. "First of all, it's not him, it's any President with a healthy libido. And personally I prefer a President with a healthy libido than one who compensates, to put it bluntly. Better Clinton's missile, than the other kind, which is used in place of it. But look at where we are now. Look at what's on the news. Is his penis bent? We all know what he's accused of. Can anybody tell you what year we're going to run out of rain forest? I've heard 2050, by the way. Talk about an age of denial." -- Peter Keough

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