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"Wag The Dog" gets caught chasing its tale.

By Stacey Richter

JANUARY 20, 1998:  WAG THE DOG begins with a corny, televised campaign commercial that obviously plays to the lowest common denominator: "Don't switch horses in midstream!" goes the slogan, and then a pair of horsemen explain the meaning of this common phrase. It's a little bit too close to home though, because at the end of the opening credits, there's a short explanation of how the title Wag the Dog comes from the old saw about the tail wagging the dog--in case we don't get it--which raises the question: Who's the idiot here? How much explaining is this movie going to do?

Wag the Dog can't decide. On one hand it's a fairly sophisticated comedy (with a screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet); on the other it's an overly literal, predictable movie that takes one good joke and keeps throwing it at the audience for two hours. It almost feels like director Barry Levinson can't decide if the audience is smart enough to get good, strong political satire. So he waters it down.

That said, the first half hour of Wag the Dog is fast-paced, biting, and funny. Robert DeNiro plays Conrad Brean, a frumpy, likable political puppet master. ("What's your job, anyway?" someone asks.) He's the guy they call when the President is accused, 11 days before the election, of fondling (or otherwise violating) a "Firefly Girl"--a hotter version of a girl scout. In an effort to distract the press from this enticing, juicy, and potentially damaging bit of copy, Brean and fellow White House advisor Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) invent the ultimate diversion, one that only has to hold up until the election: They decide to stage a war.

They immediately set out for Hollywood to enlist the help of Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a producer of extravaganzas who is himself such a prima donna that he tells the President to hold when he calls. Motss in turn mobilizes a group of publicity wizards including a pop songwriter, a costume designer, and a marketing genius.

The strategies that Brean, Motss and Ames employ to create the appearance of a war, without actually having one, are smart, cynical and funny--and astute. They hire a young girl and have her run in front of a blue screen, "punching in" an Albanian village in the background. There's something cynically wonderful about this: While we may feel fairly certain that the footage from the Gulf War wasn't actually filmed in a soundstage in Burbank, it's true that the press was given such limited and controlled access that the government effectively shaped the news coverage. Wag the Dog takes the next step by asking the satirical question: Why not just create the whole thing from scratch?

But after the first half hour, the story moves from a fertile level of comedy to a less politically astute, less-sharpened form of satire. After a while it seems that what's being poked fun at isn't so much Washington as Hollywood, a slower moving and more heavily pocked target. After the CIA closes down the war, Brean and company move on to what Motss labels Act 2--which is also, literally, the second act of the movie. This turns out to be a subplot involving a "hero" left behind enemy lines when American troops withdrew from Albanian soil ("Why Albania?" Heche asks. "If you have a war, you have to have an enemy," Brean replies.)

Though the marketing strategies invented to glorify this hero (who, predictably, turns out to be anything but) are amusing, they're pretty much a reprise of what we saw in Act One: different subject, same fanfare. A song is written. Information is leaked. And though it's intriguing to consider that the tie-a-yellow-ribbon campaign of the Gulf War was in fact a plot by top-level presidential advisors to create the illusion of a patriotic groundswell, one good dig does not a political satire make.

By the end, the movie abandons its early promise and turns out to be obvious and predictable. Motss is especially pissed off that all the credit for a brilliantly run campaign has been given to "a couple of film students" who thought up those idiotic, overly literal and repetitious horse commercials. But really, who's wagging whom? It turns out that Wag the Dog is pretty simple itself.

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