June 26, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

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At what point does reality become only that which is televised? If you put enough video cameras everywhere, where is the line between watching and being watched?

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The media we use to represent the world have changed over the years—cave paintings, still lifes, photography, silent film have all had their moment as the crucial source of fidelity. It’s been videotape’s turn for some time now—since the dawn of the network-news feed, really, but taking on inescapable momentum in these days of “reality programming” and cheap camcorders. Think about it: When you see a grainy, handheld image hot with presence, don’t you automatically assume it to be the truth?

The Truth, needless to say, can get lost in this Argus-eyed landscape. In addition to the much vaunted, slightly overhyped The Truman Show, two recent films out on video, Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog and Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence stake out thought-provoking positions on our instantly accessible Now, asking uncomfortable questions about who controls the image and who gets control—

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—fleetly stinging comedy, Dog conflates all our paranoia about presidential scandals and media fakery into one dark belly laugh. Eleven days before the election, the Chief Executive has been caught dallying with a Firefly Girl, so the troika of deep-cover spin-meister Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), and White House staffer Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) must concoct a diversion. Their answer? War with Albania.

Not an actual conflict, you understand, but a studio production that’s better—more controlled—than the real thing. Wag the Dog‘s key scene comes about halfway in, when the team oversees the soundstage filming of “news footage” of a young refugee (Kirsten Dunst) fleeing terrorists. A dryly funny fantasia on manufactured reality, the sequence has Motss cuing burning-bridge backdrops, dropping kittens into the arms of a peasant girl—the same process, he swears, that they used for the last Schwarzenegger film. It works because it speaks to the cynicism and imagined powerlessness behind such hoary myths as the faked moon landing, to the vague uncertainty that the Gulf War really happened. (“One video of one bomb, falls down a chimney, blows up the building,” says Brean. “The building coulda been made outta Legos.”)

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Of course, Wag the Dog became just another shard in the media mosaic when Monica Lewinsky became suddenly Starr-crossed last January and the Clinton administration started poking Iraq in the chest. Here was Video Nation gone berserk, press conferences and talking pundits and scenes from the film all refracting off each other at epilepsy-inducing—

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—if Dog starts brightly and tails off, The End of Violence never quite leaves the launching pad. Not for lack of ambition: This latest from the German director of 1988’s Wings of Desire (the far superior template for City of Angels) tackles Big Brother omniscience, race relations, social responsibility, and Hollywood action flicks. But the two main story lines never quite converge. Bill Pullman is a Joel Silver-ish film producer who flees mysterious hitmen, goes underground, and finds peace living with Mexican immigrant gardeners; Gabriel Byrne plays a scientist testing a top-secret government-surveillance system from an observatory in the Hollywood hills. The two never meet; their themes—redemption can be found only by letting go; violence cannot be eradicated by control—complement each other in theory but glance off each other in the playing.

Still, the image of Byrne’s voyeuristic aerie is a powerful one—especially in L.A., home of Rodney King. Capable of zooming in on any street corner—and, the film hints, of more direct, sinister action — this spy system would spark Orwellian fears even if its bare bones didn’t already exist in our waking world. Consider all the ATM cams, cornice monitors, and satellite eyes peering at you every day; now imagine what might happen if someone like Wag the Dog‘s Connie Brean got the idea to yoke them togeth—

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At what point does reality become only that which is televised? If you put enough video cameras everywhere, where is the line between watching and being watched? Wag the Dog: B End of Violence: B-

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