Levinson to present `Wag the Dog' at Charles

Screening tonight is part of series on political films

September 20, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog was released in 1997, it benefited from some extraordinary timing. President Bill Clinton already was busy denying he'd been sexually involved with Paula Jones and had used Arkansas state troopers to both further and help cover up his relations with her.

Within weeks of the film's December opening, the Monica Lewinsky scandal would break. And while all this was going on, the president was talking tough on Iraq, threatening the regime of Saddam Hussein with serious consequences if it kept on bullying its neighbors and interfering with U.N. weapons inspectors.

No wonder Levinson's film, about a presidential administration that devises a fake war to divert attention from its man's sexual escapades, was greeted as a political spoof of amazing alacrity, if not sobering prescience.

Tonight at the Charles Theatre, the Baltimore-born Levinson will be on hand for a 7:30 p.m. screening of the film. But the director won't be presenting it as a period piece. Instead, he says, he'll be talking about the film as being just as relevant today as ever. In fact, he says, the film's message about manipulation of the media and the artificial shaping of public opinion is even more of a cautionary tale.

"I think that where we are today is so dangerous," Levinson says. "What we are doing, and the kind of deception that is being played, is having such catastrophic consequences that it's frightening."

Sadly, he says over the phone from California, politicians are only getting better at manipulating the media and artificially molding public opinion. And that, he insists, is something that should concern everyone, regardless of political persuasion.

"Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican," he says, "the one thing you should know is that the truth is basically being prevented from getting out. Everybody plays this kind of game. I think it's catastrophic."

In Wag the Dog, Robert De Niro plays a media image-maker who, working with a presidential aide played by Anne Heche, is charged with diverting the public's attention from a sex scandal involving the president. Toward that end, he enlists the aid of a Hollywood producer played by Dustin Hoffman, and together the three come up with a foolproof plan: Create a fake war, complete with heroes, victims and even a history. Get the public to focus on that and the president automatically becomes a shoo-in for re-election.

While presidential sex scandals may have become passe, the idea that politicians manipulate the news to further their own ends is as potent as ever, Levinson says. "Unfortunately, it gets to be even more and more sinister," he says, "and everybody plays that game. That's the frightening, deadly part of it."

Tonight will mark the first time that Levinson has watched Wag the Dog since it was released. He hasn't even talked extensively about the film, which he made from a script by David Mamet.

"I have no preconceived ideas about what will happen [at the screening]," he says. "We'll look at it, talk about it, whatever."

Tonight's showing of Wag the Dog is part of a continuing series of films about politics, sponsored by the Maryland Film Festival. Screenings continue at 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Dec. 6. Future offerings include The War Room (Nov. 1), Frank Capra's State of the Union (Nov. 15) and Robert Rossen's All the King's Men (Nov. 29). Tickets are $8-$10. After tonight, screenings will be at MICA's Brown Center, 1301 Mount Royal Ave. For more information and a full schedule, call 410-752-8083 or visit www.mdfilmfest.com.

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