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Rather than try to melt the cynic's heart, "Wag the Dog" charms by keeping it on the rocks.

By Zak Weisfeld

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Every age has its defining mood or feeling. The turn of the century had ennui, the 1960s had groovy, the 1980s had greed, but we at the end of the 20th century have adopted as our psychic mascot a kind of a wan cynicism. Cynicism, once the hoarded property of Europeans, novelists, and Jewish socialists from the Lower East Side, has become the ultimate '90s accessory, like Gap khakis or a goatee.

Strangely, one of the few territories of our social life that has remained uncolonized (at least on the surface) by cynicism is Hollywood movies. Television lowered its gates to the outriders of cynicism with shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld (and The X-files, sort of). But despite the loss of its entertainment rival, mainstream Hollywood manned the barricades, relentlessly producing heartwarming, uplifting, redemptive, or vindictive fare for the masses. This isn't to argue that the people who create these movies are themselves idealistic, only that their product adheres to certain established norms that it is felt unwise to tamper with—and for good reason.

Cynicism plays well on the small screen because it's kind of funny, and television is free—not many people want to pay to see cynicism. Which would explain why people were lining up to see the inconceivable Firestorm (starring Howie Long, so help me Jesus) but the theater showing Wag the Dog was as empty as downtown on a weekend—a fact which the people responsible for Wag the Dog might find pretty damned amusing, as long as they don't have to sell their new Range Rovers to pay for it.

Wag the Dog is the ultimate cynic's fable—a dark comedy about the collusion between the government and the media to pull wool over the eyes of the gullible public. Eleven days before the election, news is about to break that the President has had carnal knowledge of a Firefly Girl in the Oval Office. In order to distract the public and win the election, the President calls in a shadowy fixer, Conrad Brean (played by Robert DeNiro) who, with the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (played by Dustin Hoffman), decides to stage a nice little war.

Despite playing to the paranoid's cliché of government and media conspiracy, Wag the Dog comes in like a blast of wintry fresh air. This is best kind of satire, played straight and to the hilt, the media's Modest Proposal. There are no heroes in Wag the Dog, no investigative reporters or crusading lawyers trying to wake America up to the conspiracy. This is a story about the elites who create taste and opinion, not the sheep who lap it up. And, it is a story gleefully told.

The script by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet crackles with a sly wit, and its deftly drawn characters and audacious scenarios allow Wag the Dog to gloss over some of the premise's technical implausibility. It's a script that the actors revel in.

DeNiro and Hoffman both turn in their best performances in recent memory playing against type. As Brean, DeNiro is gruff and professorial, a man to be taken seriously, but who doesn't dominate every scene and doesn't look like he'll personally kill anyone who stands against him. But it's Hoffman who steals the show playing the producer, Motts. Manic, vain, egomaniacal and insecure, it is Mott's refusal to accept defeat, and his love of a good story, that drives the movie to its darkly funny conclusion.

But it isn't just the stars who shine in Wag the Dog. Denis Leary does his best Denis Leary impression as the way-too-hip Fad King, the man who accessorizes the conspiracy, and Willie Nelson is almost too perfect as the stoned Nashville songwriter who gets America singing.

The only character not blessed by the script is White House staffer Winifred Ames, played by Anne Heche. Doomed to play the token woman, Heche is forced to be the voice of naiveté and ignorance, constantly showing off the brilliance of the men around her.

Despite its somewhat sour note of sexism, and a slow final act, Wag the Dog deserves nothing but credit for its audacious premise, and its unwavering adherence to it. For all its inherent cynicism, Wag the Dog feels almost uplifting; it's a story about the indefatigability of the human spirit and the burning desire to see a good story well told—even if it means that, in the end, we're all chumps.

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