Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer On With the Show

By Susan Ellis

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Wag the Dog asks the question: How gullible is the American public? And it answers it: extremely so. Then the film goes about trying to prove its thesis. The arguments it provides have the stability of a soap bubble (it seems that one simple phone call could end the ruse), but Wag the Dog plants a seed that maybe, just maybe, anything is possible.

It begins with a super-secret meeting in the White House less than two weeks before the presidential election. The topic of the meeting is how to deflect attention away from the incumbent’s improper behavior with a teenage girl. To diffuse the situation, political problem-solver Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is brought in. His solution is to give the public another concern, one that will push the girl far, far back in their minds – at least until election day.

So who says war is good for nothing? Brean decides a skirmish with Albania is just the thing. But not a real war – just the appearance of a war. To meet that end, Brean, joined by presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), flies to L.A. to recruit movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). Motss agrees to produce the war and calls in his troops, Fad King (Denis Leary) for merchandising and Johnny Green (Willie Nelson) to write an anthem.

At first the scam works amazingly well, and the molested teenager is relegated to the style section of the newspaper. But various hitches arise in the form of the switching loyalties of the CIA and a war hero who is actually a psychopath.

Wag the Dog comes at a ripe time – when politicians worry that every time Winona Ryder smokes a cigarette onscreen, thousands of her fans will soon become addicted, or that the more impressionable will want to cap somebody just because Samuel L. Jackson looked cool doing it in Jackie Brown. What Wag the Dog does is give Hollywood the influence it’s been credited with for years, and then it really goes to town.

Levinson does a good job at keeping the pace crisp and building up the situation. The screenplay cowritten by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin (from a book by Larry Beinhart) is sharp and filled with one-liners and sarcastic sight gags. At one point, when Brean is asked, “Why Albania?” he answers, “Why not?” At another, a young actress (Kirsten Dunst) is asked to play an Albania peasant for “news” footage. In her arms, she carries a bag of corn chips that will later be digitally changed into a kitten. When she asks about putting the shoot on her resume, Brean tells her that she never can. When she protests, he explains that, if she does, she’ll be killed.

And while De Niro puts in his usually fine performance as the Machiavellian Brean, Wag the Dog is Hoffman’s movie. This is one of the best parts he’s had in years. He gets to play a character with true character. Fluffy-haired and fake-tanned, Motss is a producer not satisfied with the small bit of acknowledgement he receives during his movie’s credits. He constantly laments the Oscar’s lack of a category for his kind. The only thing he has is his stories. “This is nothing” is Motss’ catchphrase, and he launches into a tale of disaster involving one of his past films. As the movie progresses, he says it more and more – until the final payoff when he gets to say it after he, Brean, and Ames suffer through a plane crash.

So what if Wag the Dog suggests we’re all chumps? It’s well worth the manipulation.

In The Boxer, director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis team up once again, as they did for In the Name of the Father, for a film about war-torn Ireland.

Day-Lewis plays Danny Flynn, a former IRA soldier who is released from prison after 14 years. He returns to his old neighborhood in Ulster to a mix of emotions. His IRA comrades respect that he never turned on them while away, but they’re suspicious of his refusal to have anything to do with his old life. In addition, there’s Maggie (Emily Watson), Danny’s girlfriend at the time of his incarceration, who has since done her duty by her IRA-leader father and married another prisoner.

The moment Danny arrives, he begins training as a boxer at the old gym where he once showed promise as a fighter. His actions spark both hope and disgust in the town as he and his coach recreate their boxing club and sponsor nonsectarian fights. While these bouts prove to be an outlet for some, including Maggie’s young son, there are those who can’t stand the mingling of the two sides, and soon violence erupts.

The Boxer is a tense film that presents Ireland’s troubles and shows that there are no easy solutions, that emotions run too deep to be taken care of by a simple boxing match. Written by Sheridan and Terry George, the film lays out a complicated tangle, where the people of Ulster are given an outlet away from the political fray through more violence in the ring.

Though The Boxer successfully draws an intriguingly sad picture of the struggle, it is missing something in regards to its two main characters. Danny is the strong, silent type, so silent, in fact, that several minutes lapse before he speaks a full sentence. Danny reveals himself at an almost aggravatingly slow pace. When it’s all said and done, there is still more to him that has to be understood. He tells Maggie that he’s loved her all those years away and she tells him the same, but the audience yearns to know more about their past together, about what draws them together. And it’s this that takes the sting out of The Boxer’s punch.

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