Every age has its defining mood or feeling. The turn of the century had ennui,
the 1960s had groovy, the 1980s had greed, but we at the end of the 20th
century have adopted as our psychic mascot a kind of a wan cynicism. Cynicism,
once the hoarded property of Europeans, novelists, and Jewish socialists
from the Lower East Side, has become the ultimate '90s accessory, like Gap
khakis or a goatee.
Strangely, one of the few territories of our social life that has remained
uncolonized (at least on the surface) by cynicism is Hollywood movies. Television
lowered its gates to the outriders of cynicism with shows like The
Simpsons and Seinfeld (and The X-files, sort of). But despite
the loss of its entertainment rival, mainstream Hollywood manned the barricades,
relentlessly producing heartwarming, uplifting, redemptive, or vindictive
fare for the masses. This isn't to argue that the people who create these
movies are themselves idealistic, only that their product adheres to certain
established norms that it is felt unwise to tamper withand for good
Cynicism plays well on the small screen because it's kind of funny, and
television is freenot many people want to pay to see cynicism. Which
would explain why people were lining up to see the inconceivable
Firestorm (starring Howie Long, so help me Jesus) but the theater showing
Wag the Dog was as empty as downtown on a weekenda fact which
the people responsible for Wag the Dog might find pretty damned amusing,
as long as they don't have to sell their new Range Rovers to pay for it.
Wag the Dog is the ultimate cynic's fablea dark comedy about
the collusion between the government and the media to pull wool over the
eyes of the gullible public. Eleven days before the election, news is about
to break that the President has had carnal knowledge of a Firefly Girl in
the Oval Office. In order to distract the public and win the election, the
President calls in a shadowy fixer, Conrad Brean (played by Robert DeNiro)
who, with the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (played by Dustin
Hoffman), decides to stage a nice little war.
Despite playing to the paranoid's cliché of government and media
conspiracy, Wag the Dog comes in like a blast of wintry fresh air.
This is best kind of satire, played straight and to the hilt, the media's
Modest Proposal. There are no heroes in Wag the Dog, no
investigative reporters or crusading lawyers trying to wake America up to
the conspiracy. This is a story about the elites who create taste and opinion,
not the sheep who lap it up. And, it is a story gleefully told.
The script by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet crackles with a sly wit, and
its deftly drawn characters and audacious scenarios allow Wag the Dog
to gloss over some of the premise's technical implausibility. It's a script
that the actors revel in.
DeNiro and Hoffman both turn in their best performances in recent memory
playing against type. As Brean, DeNiro is gruff and professorial, a man to
be taken seriously, but who doesn't dominate every scene and doesn't look
like he'll personally kill anyone who stands against him. But it's Hoffman
who steals the show playing the producer, Motts. Manic, vain, egomaniacal
and insecure, it is Mott's refusal to accept defeat, and his love of a good
story, that drives the movie to its darkly funny conclusion.
But it isn't just the stars who shine in Wag the Dog. Denis Leary
does his best Denis Leary impression as the way-too-hip Fad King, the man
who accessorizes the conspiracy, and Willie Nelson is almost too perfect
as the stoned Nashville songwriter who gets America singing.
The only character not blessed by the script is White House staffer Winifred
Ames, played by Anne Heche. Doomed to play the token woman, Heche is forced
to be the voice of naiveté and ignorance, constantly showing off the
brilliance of the men around her.
Despite its somewhat sour note of sexism, and a slow final act, Wag the
Dog deserves nothing but credit for its audacious premise, and its unwavering
adherence to it. For all its inherent cynicism, Wag the Dog feels
almost uplifting; it's a story about the indefatigability of the human spirit
and the burning desire to see a good story well toldeven if it means
that, in the end, we're all chumps.