It takes no great insight to see that Wag the Dog (New Line), a satire of political image manipulation in the era of media run amok, is frequently as glib as the targets it’s skewering. The film practically flirts with its own backroom knowingness, yet it is also sharp, speedy, and ruthlessly clever — a very classy act of nose thumbing — and it’s driven by a cruelly distilled joy that has all but disappeared from American comedy.
A couple of weeks prior to election night, the President of the United States is accused of dallying with an underage girl in a room behind the Oval Office. To divert the nation’s attention, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), the President’s spin-control guru, calls in a veteran Hollywood producer named Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), and the two end up collaborating on the ultimate political-advertising boondoggle. Using the mass media as their stage, they create, through an elaborate series of technological tricks and public relations dupes, a ”war” between the U.S. and Albania and proceed to sell it to the electorate as a heart-stirring historical moment. There are jittery press conferences, a lost American hero (who returns amid great fanfare), a ”We Are the World”-style theme song. There’s a ”mythical” newsreel image of a girl dashing through her combat-ravaged village. It all looks and feels real; yet none of it is. The war is fake, the news coverage is a sham, and so, by implication, is the collective patriotic response it provokes.
Directed by Barry Levinson, from a script by David Mamet (with Hilary Henkin credited as cowriter), Wag the Dog doesn’t just aim its darts at the moral bankruptcy of modern media snake-oil salesmen. It aims them at a populace all too eager to lap up their lies. The movie is, of course, a burlesque of the packaging of the Persian Gulf war, the way its combat was reduced to a series of bloodless high-tech images. The film’s satirical observation is that since both politicians and the corporate news outlets are now, in essence, in show business, the two sectors are actually working in cahoots. Cataclysmic events are treated as entertainment, and entertainment becomes propaganda. One can apprehend the smart-ass truth of this generality, and even the specific accuracy of how it applied to the Gulf War, and still recognize that Wag the Dog isn’t saying much about the political-media circus that hasn’t been said before. What’s new, and at times diabolically funny, is the poker-faced merriment with which the movie says it.
When Brean and Motss, assisted by a presidential aide (Anne Heche), begin to dream up their war, their corrupt imaginative energy takes on a life of its own. It’s hilarious to see them improvise grainy video images of Albania on a soundstage (their crowning touch is the addition of ”the Anne Frank sirens”), or to see them concoct, from scratch, an ancient blues record called ”Old Shoe,” which lends the perfect quaint nickname to their lost war hero. Like a media-age Preston Sturges comedy, Wag the Dog is an ode to the thrill of deception.
That thrill is embodied in Dustin Hoffman’s wickedly inspired performance. As Motss, the babbling huckster-visionary, whom we first see lying inside a tanning casket, Hoffman is reportedly doing a takeoff on the producer Robert Evans. The look is certainly Evans — the tinted glasses, the hair sprayed and coaxed into an armored pillow. Yet the character we see is pure Hoffman, a nervous egomaniac with a ferrety grin, spewing words in spasms of creative fervor. Watching Motss execute his war is like seeing a cross between a Hollywood pitch meeting, a Broadway opening night, and a hospital emergency room. With his fast-patter ebullience, Hoffman conveys the idea that Motss is eternally on the verge of expressing something ineffable. He’s got the ecstasy of showmanship in his blood, but what he always leaves unstated is that his showmanship is completely contemptuous of the audience. Only a producer who believed in bad movies, in the notion of entertainment as an epic con job, could stage a fake war with such casual effrontery.
Wag the Dog doesn’t quite sustain its manic amoral glee. There’s a juicy cameo by Woody Harrelson as the prisoner who’s recruited to play Old Shoe — he turns out to be a dim-witted psychotic rapist — but the last third of the film is powered by too much conventional action. Levinson and Mamet needed to tweak our prejudices a bit more, to fool us, perhaps, in the same way that they depict the public being fooled. Still, there’s no doubt that this is one send-up of showbiz fraudulence made by people who understand it from the inside out. A-
Wag the Dog STARRING Dustin Hoffman Robert De Niro RATED R 100 MINUTES