Barry Levinson’s political and media satire Wag the Dog goes as fast as the wind, and that’s a relief because the idea behind the movie is thin. Very thin – and at times offensively glib. So if Levinson had directed with a heavy hand, or paused for more than an instant’s reflection, he would have killed the nasty fun. It’s less than two weeks before an election, and the president, seeking another term, is accused of molesting a teenage girl just outside the Oval Office. That the allegation may be false is not the point; the Washington Post is about to run the story. What to do? The president’s operative Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) calls in a Dick Morris-like Mr. Fixit, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), and Brean, together with a big-deal Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), distracts the press and the public. They whip up a nonexistent war with mighty Albania, complete with sinister Albanian terrorists crossing the Canadian border carrying a nuke in a suitcase. Brean is a master of spin; his general method depends on exploiting other people’s paranoia and disbelief. He sends out rumors and then denies them – denies, for instance, that the United States has a B-3 bomber, which causes the press to believe that there really is such a plane and that the White House wants it kept secret.
The CIA, refusing to play ball, announces the end of the “war” – which exists, of course, only as media images and rumors put out by the White House – so Brean and Motss, in order to keep things going, create an American hero who was somehow left “behind the lines” in Albania (Woody Harrelson). The entire country goes nuts over the brave soldier who has been “cast off like an old shoe.” With a little prodding from a Motss crony known as “the Fad King” (Denis Leary), teenagers all over the country throw old shoes, tied together, up onto telephone poles. Come home, Old Shoe! There are songs, anthems, patriotic events; the scam goes on and on, each snafu provoking a triumphant new lie to keep the press and public happy right up to the election.
Now, satire doesn’t have to be responsible, but it does have to be internally coherent, and this idea, however funny, is so extremely opportunistic – and at times so crassly conceived – that it falls into a variety of contradictions of its own making. If the press is as disbelieving as Brean thinks, then it would also not believe in the “war” with Albania, including the easily disproved story of terrorists crossing the border. The disbelieving press would want to know where the instant videos of the war (which producer Motss has manufactured) come from, and so on. The script was written by David Mamet, who claims never to have read the novel – American Hero, by Larry Beinhart – that an earlier version of the screenplay (by Hilary Hankin) was based on. The screen credit has been disputed, but Levinson says he shot Mamet’s version, and in any case, the dialogue sounds like pure Mamet – brutal, fragmentary, the sound of self-justifying egotists balling their way through existence. How smart is David Mamet’s cynicism? The notion that politics is just a series of media images, that everything is manipulated behind the scenes by a few all-powerful insiders, is the kind of hip idea that has been around for decades, and in a way, it smacks of fakery itself and even of vanity. The implication is that no one can fool David Mamet; he can see through absolutely everybody. But this may be the worst illusion a talented writer can fall into.
People more intelligent than Mamet know that intelligence has its limits; a writer of genius like Chekhov approached the human mystery with some degree of humility. Knowingness may be David Mamet’s greatest vice – the limitation of his savage voice – but among show-business people, Mamet’s wary hostility passes for toughness, even for wisdom. As Jacob Weisberg pointed out in the online magazine Slate, people who stage things for a living and spend all their time caught in the secretive, deal-ridden mania of Hollywood film production may very well believe that everything important is arranged behind the scenes for a public composed of imbeciles. Cynicism is their way of life; they can’t see that politics, for all its manipulativeness and lies, is very different from show business. Ronald Reagan manipulated images, yet Reagan – corny, ignorant, deluded in some ways – was not a phony.
But now, having done my duty as a skeptic of extreme skepticism, I have to say that Wag the Dog is accomplished and at times viciously funny. Levinson, shooting very fast and cheaply, creates a likable, low-key world of rogues and scoundrels working together to gull the public; we enjoy their company, we enjoy the pretense that political and media life is like this – fast, wisecracking, devastatingly effective. The picture conveys an irresistible pleasure in fakery for its own sake, and that’s its charm.
De Niro gives a light, unemphatic performance as the fixer, a nearly anonymous man who slips into the White House wearing a rumpled tweed hat (he might be a Maryland suburbanite running for a train). De Niro’s Brean doesn’t have to speak in a loud voice; his intelligence is so obvious that everyone falls silent when he speaks at all. On the other hand, the producer Motss (the t is silent) is a boaster, a raconteur, an endless celebrant of his own triumphs and elegist of his own failure to receive sufficient recognition for those triumphs. He is the voice of purest Hollywood. When we first see Dustin Hoffman, he appears to be lying in a glass coffin. It turns out he’s getting a suntan, one of those appalling, perfect Los Angeles tans that looks painted on with brownish gold leaf. His hair fluffed and swept back nobly, Hoffman could be a swank duchess. (A resemblance to the producer Robert Evans has been lovingly noted by a number of observers.) Stan Motss is very vague about details, but he has an unquenchable, let’s-put-on-a-show spirit. “This is nothing! Nothing!” he exclaims as some unspeakable disaster befalls the team of scam artists. After all, Stan has produced the Oscars. Dustin Hoffman latches on to the producer’s vanity and grievances. Increasingly proud of the outrageous con he is working on the country – he considers it a work of art comparable to, oh, The Ten Commandments – Stan refuses to remain anonymous. He wants the public glory he doesn’t get out of putting a movie together.
Anne Heche is funny, too, in one of Mamet’s acidly written parts for women. Her political operative is so boneless morally that she invariably rushes to agree with the most powerful person in the room. Heche has a temperament like pent-up electrons; she flows in the direction of whatever circuit opens up to her. Some of the best work in the movie consists of little flashes from Heche and the other actors – things said sotto voce in the background of scenes. In many small ways, the movie is inventive and intricately wicked. Willie Nelson, as an alcoholic country-and-western singer, turns up as one of Stan’s cronies, a man who can manufacture a croaking, bluesy song at the drop of a hat. What tickles Mamet and Levinson is how cultural “authenticity” is now used to prop up completely ersatz media imagery. In order to support the “war,” Willie Nelson writes a Depression-era style folk song and also a patriotic anthem with ecstatic solos for women and blacks. In a recording session devoted to this drivel, the soloists sing so passionately they might be sending George Washington or even Jesus himself to heavenly rest.