Good 'Dog'' A political cover-up premise is nothing new. But with filmmaker Levinson and Co. pulling the strings, "Wag the Dog' barks up the right tree.

January 02, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CITIC

Barry Levinson directed "Wag the Dog" in 29 days, and it shows: This breezy bagatelle of a film moves with the sort of gleeful alacrity that distinguishes movies made for the sheer fun of it.

Thanks in large part to its crisp, unfussy tone, "Wag the Dog" never overplays its premise, which is the observation that show business and politics have become cozy to the point of indistinguishability. It simply takes that fact to its logical conclusion, presenting filmgoers with the scenario of a presidential crisis being manipulated by a shadowy campaign apparatchik and a Hollywood master showman.

It's not a terribly original idea, and it's rife with the pitfalls of any protracted inside joke, but when it's executed by a creative team of the caliber Levinson has assembled, "Wag the Dog" becomes a surprisingly trenchant, literate and fresh piece of filmmaking.

Robert De Niro plays Conrad Brean, a political spin doctor who is summoned to the White House when the president, two weeks away from re-election, becomes embroiled in a scandal involving an underage girl.

Along with gung-ho presidential adviser Winifred Ames (played by the bright, neat-as-a-pin Anne Heche), Conrad must think of a way to deflect the attention of the press -- and thus the American public -- away from the sleaze eruption and keep them preoccupied until Election Day.

Conrad hits on the idea of concocting an imaginary war, to be played out on television screens via pseudo-news briefs and "smuggled" videotape, but to make it believable he needs a real-life producer: Enter Stanley Motss (Hoffman), the same guy who produces the Oscars telecast and once made a filmed adaptation of "Moby Dick" from the point of view of the whale.

Hoffman, who recalls producer Robert Evans with his poufed-up hair and violet-tinted glasses, steals the show in "Wag the Dog," not only because he has the most vividly drawn role with the best lines, but because the war with Albania -- chosen because it's "standoffish" -- increasingly becomes his own private show of shows.

"I haven't had this much fun since live television," says Stanley, who brings in a songwriter (Willie Nelson) to compose a suitable "We Are the World"-type anthem and two advertising geniuses (Andrea Martin and Denis Leary) to think up merchandising tie-ins. (Who do you think came up with the yellow ribbons during the Gulf war? While we're on the subject, who knew that the smart bomb going down Saddam's chimney was actually produced in a studio in Falls Church? And don't even ask about the October Surprise.)

Stanley is clearly in his element when the CIA threatens to go public with the fact that there is no war with Albania. "They can't shut us down!" he screams. "It's my picture, not the CIA's picture!" But he rises to the challenge, recalling the time he was "four months into shooting 'The Song of Solomon' when I found out I didn't have the rights."

Hoffman, whose character is right in line with such Hollywood send-ups as "The Player" and "Get Shorty," does the most to sell "Wag the Dog," but to focus solely on his inspired comic turn would be to ignore the movie's many enjoyable elements. The script, adapted by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet from the Larry Beinhart novel "American Hero," sparkles with coolly efficient wit, and even as they're shunted to the sidelines, De Niro and Heche remain sporting players in the film's wicked game.

Less visible, but no less crucial, is the off-camera ensemble enlisted by Levinson, who has long had a genius for surrounding himself with outstanding collaborators. It's great to hear movie music by Mark Knopfler again, and his mellow guitar score provides terrific propulsion to this swiftly moving story.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has distinguished himself already this year in shooting "U-Turn" and Errol Morris' "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," shows once again his deep, intuitive understanding of film, in all its shadings and translucence. Richardson shoots Washington and Hollywood in penumbral shades of blue and gray, often through filmy cataracts of rain, or the undulating surface of a swimming pool. The effect is a gently contemplative echo of the shadowy goings-on in the foreground.

Edited with similar sensitivity by Stu Linder, "Wag the Dog" only falters for a few minutes toward the end, when a "prisoner of war," played by an uncredited Woody Harrelson, enters the picture with an unsuccessful attempt at racy humor. But this ill-advised sequence doesn't last long, and "Wag the Dog" manages to regain altitude for its fitting, darkly funny conclusion.

The image of Arlington Cemetery during the finale is evidence that, even at its most satirically paranoid, "Wag the Dog" hits close enough to home to make a wacky, sinister kind of sense.


*** 1/2

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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