"Wag the Dog"
It's 11 days before election day and the president has just been accused of copping a feel on a girl scout visiting the White House. Enter Conrad Brean, spin doctor extraoridnaire. Beyond cynical, this guy is positively nonchalant about rescuing the campaign of a possible pedophile. He's just doing his job.
But what could possibly be a big enough story to distract the voters from these scandalous allegations?
Well, how about a war? A good, old fashioned, patriotic and terribly vague war.
"You really want us to start a war," a White House aide asks. "With who?"
"I'm working on that," says Brean.
This is the sardonic set-up for "Wag the Dog," the most ingenious and wicked political satire since "Dr. Strangelove."
An un-morality tale about the irrelevance of politicians and the gullibility of the press and public (we're the dog, you see), "Wag" was adapted by dialogue prodigy David Mamet and Hilary Henkin from the book "American Hero" by Larry Beinhart.
A twisted comedy that flirts so closely with reality that one can't help but wonder if Washington insiders will recognize themselves in it, the movie stars Robert De Niro as a damage control point man hired to engineer a complex, fictional Grenada-like crisis to draw attention away from the scandal and reinvent the president as a hero in time for the election.
The plan is concocted at secret meetings in a White House bunker, shot documentary-style by director Barry Levinson. The damage control team includes Anne Heche as a presidential aide and Denis Leary as the Fad King, a professional trend adviser.
Recruited to help manufacture war footage that will be leaked to television news programs is Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), an ultra-tan Hollywood producer with a tender ego who just can't get it through his head that he can never brag to anyone about what he sees as a very prestigious project.
Brean plots every move, from hiring a folk singer (Willie Nelson) to write a patriotic song, to manufacturing a war hero trapped behind enemy lines. The soldier they draft to play the returning POW turns out to be a Frankenstein monster from a military mental ward, but Brean always has a contingency plan on the ready (the hero is tragically killed in a plane crash). And he never for a second stops to question the morality of it all.
An inspired bit of dark sarcasm, this movie was made in 29 days on an almost pocket-change budget of $15 million. A pet project that Levinson, Hoffman and De Niro dedicated themselves to between projects, it has every American voter, reporter and politician in the cross hairs of its comic cannon.
Once Brean picks harmless Albania as the aggressor in his fictional conflict, he and Motss spend an afternoon in a Hollywood studio staging news footage of a refugee girl escaping a bombed-out Albanian village. The whole concoction is shot against a blue screen with the girl carrying a bag of Doritos. The village added in post-production and the Doritos are morphed into a kitten, leaving us with a mighty scary look at how easy it may be to fake the kind of stuff we see every night on the news.
But the slyest farcical element of the film is the fact that the president is wholly irrelevant. He's not even a character, short of being an unheard voice on the other end of phone calls making superfluous suggestions, like that the cat should definately be white.
It is to Levinson's credit that the movie so perfectly balances biting humor with a true-to-life tone so dead-on that press secretaries could almost use it as a training film.
His deft, deadpan direction and the obvious fun De Niro and Hoffman have playing off each other make "Wag the Dog" a keeper.
These three men have been at least partially responsible for some of the most memorable movies of the last quarter century, but this one ranks among of the very best any of them have made.