Motss is a comic grotesque and a pain, but he's also a never-say-die guy. When circumstances and enemies conspire to cut short his glorious war before its final act, he quickly revises the scenario with a postwar crisis, a heroic aftermath, a homecoming, and a memorial. He sees the life of a producer as that of "a samurai warrior," in constant preparation for catastrophe.

Probably the most generous aspect of the movie is its view of show-biz competence. The squad Motss assembles to stage the phony war -- the clothes designer Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin), the gimmick-master known as the Fad King (Denis Leary), and the country music star Johnny Green (Willie Nelson) -- is able to trick up street couture, sales hooks, and theme songs for every occasion. These people are supershrewd; they're also narcissistic. Indeed from the moment we hear him calling for a veggie shake from inside his tomblike tanning chamber, Motss is the Sun King of solipsism. And the members of his crew reflect him in their loony, self-centered professionalism. After all when they cook up their hokey conflict, they're not following orders; they're merely fulfilling an assignment. There's a wonderful tableau of Motss, Butsky, and the Fad King discussing their limited political involvement. Motss says he votes only for Oscars; the Fad King once cast a ballot for the baseball all-star team; Butsky says she never votes because the booths make her feel too claustrophobic.

Of course part of what makes the film so entertaining is its own astounding professionalism. Shot fast -- in a month -- it has a distinctive low-key crackle. Unlike most stage or screen directors, including David Mamet, who wrote Wag the Dog's screenplay, Levinson knows how to enrich staccato dialogue with emotion and fluidity without losing its pointedness and punch. Mamet nails the characterizations, and Levinson lets the verbiage marinate in the actors' own vital juices. The result is a thrillingly energized comic ensemble. Performers such as Heche and Leary, who have been overly strident on-screen in the past, jump out in a good way here on the strength of their bursting talent. Heche in particular is like a two-fisted Alice in a violently booby-trapped Wonderland, graduating with monomaniacal verve from Brean's sidekick and helpmate to his partner. With the collaboration of Robert Richardson (Oliver Stone's usual cinematographer), Levinson has cleverly varied the texture of the movie, exploiting the changes in setting and media for a tingling visual-polyglot effect. The sequence of Motss and his techies conjuring a wartime atrocity out of staged and stock footage is a marvel of prestidigitation.

My favorite moments shoot out from the loving portraiture created by the actors. Flailing at the military men who've dropped a dangerous mental patient in her hands (the ineffable Woody Harrelson), Heche is all knees and elbows. Willie Nelson and Roebuck "Pops" Staples communicate through wrinkled brows while strumming up a "folk" song. (The music is aptly and sometimes infuriatingly catchy, an example of political kitsch skillfully imitating art.) And even when she's just standing around a table, Andrea Martin's proud profile juts out like a ship's figurehead.

By now the vocabularies of politics and entertainment have grown so close that they're interchangeable. John Podhoretz called his laser-sharp book about the Bush Administration Hell of a Ride -- and that's the phrase Brean and Motss use to describe their media mock-adventure. Luckily Wag the Dog is more than a hell of a ride. As a political satire, it ranks with Robert Altman's TV miniseries Tanner '88 (1988); as a show-biz satire, it outstrips that same director's The Player (1992). The whole movie is like a coming attraction for a hazardous future. It starts in the realm of ballyhoo and hokum, but by the end it draws real blood.

Wag the Dog.
Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by David Mamet. Starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, and Andrea Martin.

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