Wag the Dog
directed by Barry Levinson
(New Line Cinema, 1998)

"Our guy did bring peace," Hollywood producer Stan Motss notes in summing up the president's accomplishments.

"Yeah, but there wasn't a war," Washington spin doctor Conrad Brean reminds him.

"All the greater accomplishment," Motss replies.

All David Mamet plays eventually boil down to a conversation between two characters. Wag the Dog, which was co-scripted by Mamet and Hilary Henkin, is no exception.

The film's concept is as simple as it is timely: to avoid having the president's re-election campaign derailed by a sexual scandal, his spin doctor (Robert DeNiro) creates a crisis in far-away Albania.

The nonexistent crisis calls for a swift denial from the nameless president about his willingness to use a non-existent aircraft, the B-3 bomber, to stop Albanian terrorists from delivering a non-existent suitcase bomb via Canada to the United States.

If none of this makes sense, that's OK. It doesn't have to. It only has to divert the media for 11 days so the president can get re-elected.

But diverting the media is no easy task. Brean knows you can't sustain an international crisis for more than a week without some kind of evidence. That's where Motss (Dustin Hoffman) comes in.

Motss' job is to document the non-existent crisis so that the American public will not only buy into it, but add onto it. And he exceeds even his own hyperbolic intentions.

Wag the Dog is the work of a number of Hollywood veterans, all of whom understand the nature of verisimilitude: the importance of making something appear as if it's really happening.

It's that talent for verisimilitude that's made Barry Levinson one of Hollywood's top directors, from his 1982 directorial debut, Diner, to his Oscar-winning Rain Man and Oscar-nominated Avalon and Bugsy.

But in Wag the Dog, Levinson takes viewers behind the scenes to show them just how that verisimilitude is pieced together, most notably when Brean films his all-important war footage from Albania on a Hollywood sound stage.

Levinson, via Motss, shows us the footage being assembled layer by layer, from the moment an actress first runs past a blue screen holding a bag of corn chips until the blue screen is turned into an Albanian village and the chips are digitized into a white kitten.

Then as if verisimilitude weren't enough, a country singer (Willie Nelson) is brought in to write a heroic ballad for the non-existent troops in Albania and a military misfit (Woody Harrelson) is exhumed to supply the hero to match the ballad.

The result is not unlike watching a master magician reveal how he performs a complicated piece of sleight of hand: it's hard not to laugh, even though the overall effect is eerily disquieting.

Levinson's performance is matched by Hoffman, who invests Motss with as much nervous energy as he gave The Graduate 30 years earlier. The worse things get, the happier he is: "I haven't had this much fun since live television," he tells Brean. Those who remember live TV know exactly what he's talking about.

If Wag the Dog has an obvious shortcoming, it's that little it has to say is new. By now, most Americans know that politicians have spin doctors, the media are all too easy to bait and it's hard to believe anything in a world where anything can be made to look believable.

But with masters like Levinson, DeNiro, Hoffman and Mamet saying it, it's hard not to listen. And even harder not to watch.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.