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Salt Lake City Weekly Wagging Public Sentiment

Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" is a satirical send-up of a deceitful political system and gullible news media.

By Mary Dickson

JANUARY 20, 1998:  In the tradition of Dr. Strangelove and Bob Roberts comes a deliciously wicked and sharp-edged political satire straight from the pages of today's news.

When the President of the United States is accused of sexual misconduct with a 13-year-old, his advisers are distraught, and his re-election is all but doomed. That is, unless a bigger news story can grab the headlines. Like a war, for instance. The advisers' mission: Manufacture a war and get the sex scandal off the front page.

But it's a covert operation that's going to take the best and the brightest. Someone with vast experience. Someone who has limitless imagination. Who you gonna call? Not the CIA, the policy wonks nor the Pentagon.

No, this is job for the Producers! Call Hollywood and get the man who has manufactured spectacle, pageant, disaster and crisis.

That's the premise behind Barry Levinson's fast-paced, smart satire with so much snappy dialogue some of it flies right past you before you have time to catch it. David Mamet and Hilary Henkin wrote the razor-sharp screenplay that so perfectly skewers politics, media and show business. This is satire at its best, at once outrageously hilarious but with dark overtones.

Dustin Hoffman, in a bravura performance, plays fast-talking Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (silent "t") called in to create a war, an act of patriotism for which he'll receive a nice little ambassadorship. Robert DeNiro plays master fixer Conrad Brean, a top spin doctor. "It's not a war," Brean tells Motss. "It's a pageant."

Brean and his assistant, a cold careerist played by Ann Heche, are those spectral political players who are neither elected nor have cabinet positions, but wield oh-so-much power. They're master spinners, self-congratulatory, smooth-talking hucksters who could sell anything. The way they see it, war's good business for everyone involved, and whatever it takes to get their man re-elected goes. They're always on their cell phones to get the president's input on details from story casting to storyline. You never actually see the president in Wag the Dog, a wise move on Levinson's part, but you know him for an amoral opportunist. No one comes off looking good in this satire.

Wars need an enemy, so Albania is chosen. Since Albania doesn't pose much of a threat, they create one. In their scenario, an Albanian radical sends a suitcase bomb to Canada and is planning to attack Washington and New York City. Call out the troops.

Wag the Dog
Robert DeNiro (left) and Dustin Hoffman Wag: A scalding send-up of the political and news media systems.
Directed by
Barry Levinson
Dustin Hoffman
Robert DeNiro
Using modern technology and every special effect at their disposal, all the handlers need to manufacture an international crisis is a television studio and a lot of computer capability. They hire a young girl (Kirsten Dunst), dress her as an Albanian peasant and have her run through a studio, carrying a bag of Doritos. No problem, from the control room they can electronically paste in a cat (the president has requested a cute white cat) over the Doritos, replace the studio floor with a village scene and add the sounds of gunfire.

"Throw in a bridge!" orders Motss. You want a river, a pond or a stream? It's all there in the image bank. "Flames! Let's add flames!" Voila! A poor peasant girl whose village is under siege. They feed it to the networks and, within minutes the scene is playing on newscasts all over the country. Check facts? Why bother?

War needs a surge of patriotism. Call in the songwriters. They hire Willie Nelson for the job, and soon they're recording a "We Are the World"-sort of anthem to rouse the masses. It's show time!

Motss meanwhile just keeps rolling with the punches. He's a producer extraordinaire. He knows how to milk the plot and focus public attention back on his "pageant": Cast a war hero left behind enemy lines; give him a theme song; orchestrate a dramatic, highly-publicized return; and presto, the unsuspecting media and public are back in your pocket.

With Wag the Dog, Levinson and cast have crafted a scalding send-up, not only of the political system with its machinations, lies, deceit and covers but of a gullible, spoon-fed media that take the satellite feeds from politicians and government officials without questioning; of a slick Hollywood culture that substitutes marketing and entertainment for substance; and of a fickle public whose sentiments can so easily be manipulated that all it takes to rouse their support is a well-produced theme song.

As men and women sport "Fuck Albania" T-Shirts and sell buttons proclaiming the new enemy, or throw their shoes into trees in support of captured heroes, you can't help but think of the hoopla over the Gulf War. It doesn't take much to fool — or control — a nation that's too apathetic or lazy to do its own checking or that is so hungry for entertainment and spectacle it is only too eager to "amuse itself to death," as culture critic Neil Postman has so aptly put it: "Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle and you can pull anything off."

Levinson's must-see film is scathing satire at its best — outrageous, laugh-out-loud funny, right on target, and in the end, pretty damned scary.

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