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'Wag the Dog' grabs satire by the tail

Wag the Dog January 6, 1998
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EST (1800 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- You have to give Barry Levinson some credit. Though I've grown less-than-thrilled with the kind of broad-appeal films he's been churning out after the success of his classic -- and highly intimate -- directorial debut, "Diner," Levinson recently has started doing what Hollywood, with its limited vocabulary, likes to refer to as "edgy" work.

In recent years, he's created and produced the great, groundbreaking NBC cop show, "Homicide," and now he's directed a small-budget political black comedy called "Wag the Dog." Though "Wag the Dog" winds up being far less than the sum of its considerable parts (the stellar cast includes Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, William H. Macy and Woody Harrelson), it isn't a career move for anybody involved, and it displays a ton of chutzpah. That's a whole lot more than you usually get from a popular studio director with 10 movies and an Oscar under his belt.

Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, "Wag the Dog" is a broad satire that sometimes gets broad enough to remind you of something like "Dr. Strangelove," which is pretty broad indeed. Like Kubrick did with "Strangelove," Levinson is sharply skewering the dangerous truth-twisting of bureaucratic archetypes.

Unlike "Strangelove," however, the situation in which these power plays take place isn't of the life-or-death variety. Lots of ridiculous, opinionated jawing goes on, but the lack of real urgency makes it seem terribly redundant after a while. Given Mamet's track record, you would expect lots of the dialogue to be biting, and it often is. After a few bites, though, the hot dog has been eaten and you're left gnawing on a bun.

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President's spin man

De Niro plays Conrad, a secretive government operative with a vaguely defined job description.

Basically, he's the guy who gets the president out of tight situations. The one he's dealing with in the movie concerns a Firefly Girl (more or less a Girl Scout) who claims that the prez groped her in the Oval Office. Re-election is just 11 days away, and Conrad has been called in to set up some kind of smoke screen to give the press something meatier to chew on and knock the Firefly Girl off the front page.

Anne Heche, an actress who, until now, has been best known for flinging her arms around girlfriend Ellen DeGeneres' neck every time there's a camera within 100 yards, plays a White House aide who is to brainstorm with De Niro and make sure his plans are carried out. Heche is very good, displaying a bemused intelligence that has just the right mixture of jingoism and disbelief.

What's finally decided is that the citizens of the United States need a war to take their minds off of the president's naughty, drifting hands, so De Niro and Heche decide to leak the completely false story that the country is about to go to war with Albania.

Why Albania? Because, as Conrad (quite insincerely) says, "They seem shifty. They seem standoffish." Mock news footage then has to be shot of an Albanian girl running through the rubble of her war-torn village, clutching a kitten to her chest. This is movie stuff, so now they'll need a movie producer. Enter Dustin Hoffman.

Producing an 'Albanian war'

Hoffman gives his best performance in years, as a preening, self-absorbed Hollywood fat cat who spends half his time lying on his tanning bed and the other half praising himself for his "genius" at bringing talented people together.

This near-talentless man with the money to supposedly "direct" other people's abilities is a movie industry staple, and Hoffman has a field day with the character. He sees De Niro's project as his ultimate challenge, his chance to do some Oscar-caliber work even though he's never won one. Unfortunately, he won't be able to tell anyone about it. This turns out to be the egomaniac's undoing.

The production of the "war" footage is the best stuff in the movie. The level of insanity just keeps rising as Hoffman wills an Albanian massacre into being, complete with an outraged-but-uplifting "We Are the World"-style theme song.

On a studio set, Kirsten Dunst, as the Albanian girl, is made to run in front of a blue screen over and over again, while various bombed-building panoramas are inserted behind her on the monitors. Smoke and fire is added, then sound effects. This includes one of my favorite pieces of dialogue this year: "It needs ooh-aah sirens. You know, 'ooh-aah-ooh- ahh.' Anne Frank." Since they've yet to decide what sort of kitty will be digitally inserted into Dunst's arms, the Albanian refugee is often shown running around grasping a large bag of Tostitos to her chest.

Second half of movie less fun

Then the fun slows down considerably. The second half of the movie gets into something of a grind as more and more rumors are released, the dialogue becomes unbearably single-minded, and a war hero is invented to keep the American public entranced.

Woody Harrelson, however, has a funny cameo as a prison psycho whose picture was accidentally selected as the face of the hero. When it's time to have the guy speak to the American public, a glowering lunatic shows up at the airport saying unsolicited stuff like, "As long as you get me back for the beans, 'cause tomorrow's beans."

I can only say this within the context of the film, but, luckily, he gets killed. That means that Hoffman's next production is an elaborate funeral for a fake war hero who fought in a fake war.

That string of fakes is exactly why the movie eventually falls apart. It's the same joke chasing its tail for the last 45 minutes of the film, but, in fits and starts, there's a lot to be said for "Wag the Dog." Everyone involved, especially Barry Levinson, should be applauded for stepping out a little bit. Keep up the risky work, guys. It's starting to get pretty boring out there.

"Wag the Dog" contains the usual barrage of Mamet profanities, and the cold manipulation is sometimes unnerving. Politically astute teen-agers should enjoy it -- that is, if there are any. Rated R. 97 minutes.


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