By Stephanie Zacharek
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When was the last time the audience applauded a trailer and the movie lived up to it? Independence Day enticed millions with its preview shot of the White House blown to smithereens, but that film was a dumb, elephantine sci-fi pastiche. The trailer for Wag the Dog, a far more accurate reflection of its finished movie, has been winning cheers and laughs for demolishing the White House--with satire. In this film's twisted game plan, presidential aides concoct an election-eve straight-to-video war with Albania to torpedo charges that their boss improperly touched a teenage girl. The preview audience instantly sees the logic of Hollywood and Washington working together to create that greatest of political diversions: an international crisis. And the complete movie is better than the trailer. It's a scintillating political lampoon, as ticklishly precise as Robert Altman's HBO series Tanner '88. Director Barry Levinson has given this swift, sure-footed film a matter-of-fact, improvisational look and feel. To appreciate its brisk, confident wild comedy, all you need is a funny bone and a BS meter. It should appeal equally to American voters who always end up feeling hoodwinked and to the slackers and protesters who don't vote.
Levinson's best movie since Diner has a premise in some ways as old as the 1978 thriller Capricorn One, about a manned flight to Mars that turned out to be staged. In Wag the Dog, the event that's faked is a war, but the process that's being dummied up is American democracy, and the victim is the American community. Yet the movie doesn't become a heavy-handed, moralistic fable; it remains a waggish tale, not a finger-wagging horror. Levinson takes viewers so far inside his satiric vision of a Beltway-to-Bel Air image-making corps that it's hard not to get caught up in the team spirit. The movie says this is the only genuine spirit left in America--and it threatens to leave actual corpses in its wake.
After a Campfire Girl-like teen blows the whistle on the president's Oval Office misconduct, D.C. spin doctor Connie Brean (Robert De Niro) decides that the chief executive needs to galvanize support for a Gulf War-ish conflict, albeit in tiny, mysterious Albania, which is suitably "shifty, standoffish." (Speaking of mystery, we never see the president's face, only his back.) Brean knows that what Americans recall from past wars are images, slogans, merchandising; his plan is to deliver that stuff on the airwaves. That's where Dustin Hoffman comes in. Brean and presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) enlist legendary Hollywood producer Motss (the T is usually silent), played by Hoffman, to craft a scenario of terrorism in Albania and a suitcase bomb coming in through Canada to gear up the country for war.
What's original about the movie's take on the spin doctor, Brean, is that he isn't a James Carville or a Lee Atwater. Brean scarcely projects any personality, much less a colorful one, and he won't take any credit for his successes--he just wants to do his job and disappear. He's the political functionary for an age when no one plays the posterity game--when everybody realizes that the country's attention span has shrunk to minutes and the memory bank is depleted, too. All he cares about is results; all he cherishes is his professional reputation.
If Seinfeld is the comedian of nothing, Brean is nothing's kingpin. In the movie's early going, when he advises the president's men (and women) to plant questions about Albania in the press and then "Deny, deny, deny!" he could be counseling Bush on Irangate or James Cameron on the troubles of Titanic. But there's one huge difference: Brean urges his clients to deny a controversy that doesn't exist, and then, when it's been fabricated, fess up to it. De Niro comes up with his canniest performance since his sizzling cameo a dozen years ago in Terry Gilliam's Brazil; he transforms Brean's combination of observance and recession into a treasure trove of comic surprises, as well as a font of evil wisdom. At one point a CIA agent (played by William H. Macy) figures out the scam--"Two things I know to be true: There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war." Macy does one of his riotous deadpan specialty numbers as the self-righteous CIA man; in one terse scene he electrifies the character, giving him the lightning certainty of a human lie detector. But when he faces Brean, the poor guy doesn't know what he's up against. De Niro's understated knowingness envelops all the people around Brean like a hilarious existential blob, whether they're from the CIA or the motion-picture academy. While Motss, the Mr. Fix-it of the back lot, responds to setbacks with the high-pitched snarl, "This a walk in the park," Brean sits back and assumes a browsing position. Actually, he's speed-reading every situation.
What distinguishes Motss the archetypal mogul from Brean the ultimate insider is that Motss wants to leave a legacy: He still believes in history, even if to him it's just the history of motion pictures. Unlike Brean, he hates his anonymity. After all his years in Tinseltown, he's still annoyed that the Academy doesn't give a prize for best producer (simply accepting the Best Picture Oscar, as producers traditionally do, wouldn't be enough for Motss), and he's outraged that nobody knows what a producer does. He's not solely an image-maker--he's a showman. Hoffman's acting here may outdo his peak work in Tootsie: He takes a leap of sympathetic imagination with an unsympathetic character, imbuing him with Chunnel-scale tunnel vision and an egotism that are simultaneously appalling and grandly touching. Nothing that happens in the universe can compare to the travails he suffered while making movies, like finishing a new version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after three of the horsemen die.
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