"Wag the Dog"

How a real-life documentary helped inspire a whip-smart political satire about a made-up war.

By Michael Sragow

Published October 25, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Wag the Dog"
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin
New Line Home Video; widescreen (1.85:1) and full screen
Extras: Commentary by Levinson and Hoffman, featurettes, interview with Macy, trailer, biographies, filmographies

In the last two weeks of a presidential fight that has pivoted on image, not substance, no DVD release could be more timely than that of "Wag the Dog."

The polite Beltway dismissal of "Wag the Dog" on its 1997 theatrical release -- paradoxically, it was pilloried for being either far-fetched or familiar -- showed once again how out of touch pundits have become. They focused on the scenario of a president deflecting attention from a peccadillo with a trumped-up war. They didn't realize that "Wag the Dog" was largely about the gullibility of the media. In the three years since, no other political picture has entered the zeitgeist in such a big way.

In this film's twisted game plan, presidential aides concoct an election-eve straight-to-video war with Albania to "change the subject" from the scandalous charge that the president improperly touched a "Firefly Girl" in the Oval Office. The premise is in some ways as old as the 1978 thriller "Capricorn One," about a manned flight to Mars that turns out to be staged. But here the process that's being dummied up is nothing less than American democracy -- and the victim is American community. Director Barry Levinson takes viewers so far inside his black-comic vision of Beltway-to-Bel Air image-makers that we get caught up in their team spirit. The movie says that this is the only genuine spirit left in America -- and it threatens to leave actual corpses in its wake.

What DVD viewers may not recall is that the film predated the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In fact, when I first reviewed the picture, I said that the spinning efforts of political mastermind Robert De Niro -- who advises the president's men (and women) to plant questions about Albania in the press and then "Deny, deny, deny!" -- resembled the publicity campaigns of the Bush administration on Irangate and James Cameron on the troubles of "Titanic." According to the various commentaries and extras on the DVD, the inspiration for the source novel ("American Hero" by Larry Beinhart) and the first script (by Hilary Henkin) was the Bush White House's stage management of the Persian Gulf War.

As Levinson guided a rewrite of the script with David Mamet, he became convinced that the satire had to focus on behind-the-scenes manipulation and the public selling of a war with suitable icons, props and music. So in the Mamet script, De Niro's Conrad Brean and presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) enlist legendary Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), along with a whole host of subpromoters, in their cause. (No, that's not a misprint -- the "t" in "Motss" is usually silent. But that's the only thing about him that is.)

Brean is 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 its memory bank is depleted, too. 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. Motss is a comic grotesque and a pain, but he's also a never-say-die guy. He sees the life of a producer as that of "a samurai warrior," in constant preparation for catastrophe. The squad Motss assembles -- clothes designer Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin), the gimmick master known as the Fad King (Denis Leary) and country music star Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson) -- is able to trick up street couture, sales hooks and theme songs for every occasion. Probably the most generous aspect of the movie is the way this ensemble proves to be a paradigm of showbiz competence.

The DVD's special audio track intersperses commentary from Levinson, who indicates how much intuitive skill went into the pacing and layering of the dialogue, with revealing riffs from Hoffman, who confesses that his characterization of Motss was modeled not on Robert Evans (as even Evans thought) but on Hoffman's father. In another extra, William H. Macy eloquently expounds on Mamet's brilliance. After all, Macy is a Mamet veteran, and for his CIA man cameo in "Wag the Dog," Mamet gave Macy the film's funniest single line: "Two things I know to be true: There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war."

The disc also contains "The Line Between Truth and Fiction," an ambitious essay on the links among political satires, newspaper pictures and several decades of film noir. Unfortunately, this piece is poorly edited and proofed: At one point, it refers to Vietnam-era New Yorker TV critic Michael Arlen as if he were the late actor Richard Arlen.

But a featurette called "From Washington to Hollywood and Back," including interviews with, among others, Levinson, John Frankenheimer, Budd Schulberg and Tom Brokaw, is swift and engaging. Levinson and co-producer Jane Rosenthal discuss their fascination with the 1993 documentary about the Clinton campaign's 24-hour nerve center, "The War Room," and that movie's co-directors, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, testify to the love-hate between politicos and media folk. In a clip from "The War Room" that has special pertinence today, Clinton campaign strategist James Carville complains of a double standard: "We say 50 plus 50 equals 104; they say 50 plus 50 equals 104,000" -- and, groans Carville, the media concludes that both sides are just "stretching the numbers a little bit."

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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