The notion that politics is show business is taken to woozy heights in Wag
the Dog, Barry Levinson's exhilaratingly swift-paced satire. The title
emerges from the movie's epigraph -- "A dog wags its tail because the dog is
smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog" -- and
the picture centers on a pair of seasoned dog-waggers. Conrad Brean (Robert De
Niro) is the adviser brought in clandestinely by top presidential aide Winifred
Ames (Anne Heche) to save her boss's re-election campaign after a "Firefly
Girl" accuses him of molesting her during a White House tour. Brean's solution
is to start a phony war with Albania to take the heat off the president's
sexual indiscretion, and Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) is the Hollywood
producer Brean hires to stage it.
Working from a juicy script by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet that has
Levinson's fingerprints all over it, these three make a joyous grab at the kind
of comic roles that invigorate actors. Watching their scenes together is like
tuning into a classic three-hander from the '30s with, say, John Barrymore,
Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell in the leads. Hoffman's Stan Motts, who holds
his first meeting with his Washington guests in his private tanning salon, is
appalling and endearing, an inspired (and seamless) blend of improvisational
energy and self-love. It's a kingpin performance, as definitive in its way as
Barrymore's impression of the ego-raging Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe in
Twentieth Century (though Motss's narcissism, unlike Jaffe's, has a
sweetly indulgent smile on its burnished face) and as acutely observed as
Hoffman's loving burlesque of the Method actor in Tootsie.
A new, improved Robert De Niro understates wittily, the reflexes of his
dazzling days as a hotshot young star miraculously restored. Anne Heche comes
out from behind the underwritten parts she's been struggling with in movies
like Donnie Brasco and earns the right to spar with both these men.
Heche gives bright-eyed Winifred Ames, the Washington insider who goes
Hollywood, a siege mentality and a sputtering neurotic quality. This is the
kind of comedy Judy Davis tried to inject into her role as the chief of staff
in the brain-dead White House thriller Absolute Power. Heche is luckier
-- she has the material to pull it off.
The movie is about how Brean and Motts, with Ames's collusion, transform every
obstacle in their path into an inspiration. It's a series of sketches, every
one of them memorable. To rev up public sentiment, Stan hires a fresh-faced
young actress (Kirsten Dunst), throws a babushka on her, and as she races
across a soundstage, miming terror, he dresses up the screen with
computer-controlled images that lift her out of the studio and into the streets
of a bombed Albanian village. (The prop in her arms metamorphoses before our
eyes into a variety of pet animals, settling on a white cat -- the personal
choice of the president himself, who phones it in while he's mobilizing the
Sixth Fleet.) Willie Nelson plays the musician who comes up with the anthem for
the war ("We love our American borders/We guard the American dream"). Then,
when the shrewd senator (Craig T. Nelson) who's running against the president
undermines Brean's scheme by "ending" the non-war ("How can he end the war?
He's not producing this!" is Stan's incredulous response), he and Motss invent
a war hero, a POW, and a new song is written to usher him into folk legend.
Woody Harrelson, in a hilarious performance, plays the medicated ex-con hired
to give this invention flesh and blood.
Wag the Dog has less fat on its bones than anything Levinson has done
since Diner -- he shot it in less than a month, and it shows in all the
best ways. And except for his translation of Uncle Vanya (the one Andre
Gregory used for Vanya on 42nd Street), this is far and away the best
work David Mamet has ever had a hand in. You can hear the Mamet trademarks in
the script, but here they're conscious rather than self-conscious. Everyone in
Wag the Dog is in on the joke; everyone is in top form, including the
composer, Mark Knopfler, and especially the editor, Stu Linder. There isn't a
sore thumb in the cast, which includes William H. Macy as a CIA honcho, Denis
Leary and a dyspeptic Andrea Martin as Heche's helpmates, Suzie Plakson as
Motss's assistant, and, in brilliantly conceived bits, Jim Belushi and Merle
Haggard. Simultaneously rapid-fire and relaxed, Wag the Dog is a satire
with teeth and a vaudeville spirit.