In the twisted game plan of Barry Levinson's scintillating political satire Wag the Dog, presidential aides concoct an election-eve war with Albania in the hopes of torpedoing charges that their boss improperly touched a teenage girl. Hollywood and Washington work together to create that greatest of diversions: an international crisis. Levinson has given this swift, sure-footed lampoon a matter-of-fact, improvisational look and feel. To appreciate its brisk, confident, wild comedy, all you need is a funny bone and a B.S. meter. It should appeal equally to American voters who always end up feeling hoodwinked and to slackers and protesters who don't vote.

Levinson's best movie since Diner (1982), Wag the Dog has a premise in some ways as old as the 1978 thriller Capricorn One, in which a manned flight to Mars turns out to be staged. Here the event that's faked is a war, but the process that's being dummied up is our democracy, and the victim is the American public. Yet the movie doesn't become a heavy-handed, moralistic fable; it's a waggish tale, not a finger-wagging horror. Levinson takes viewers so far inside his satiric vision of a D.C./Hollywood image-making corps that it's hard not to get caught up in the team spirit. The movie says that this is the only genuine spirit left in the U.S. -- and it threatens to leave actual corpses in its wake.

After a Camp Fire Girl-like teen blows the whistle on the President's Oval Office misconduct, D.C. spin-doctor Connie Brean (Robert De Niro) decides that the Chief Executive needs to galvanize support for a Gulf War-type conflict in tiny, mysterious Albania, a nation that is, as he terms it, suitably "shifty, standoffish." (And speaking of mystery, we see only the President's back, never his face.) Brean knows that what Americans recall from past wars are images, slogans, and merchandising; his plan is to deliver this stuff on the airwaves. That's where Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) comes in. Brean and presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) enlist the legendary Motss to craft a scenario of terrorism in Albania and a suitcase bomb coming into the U.S. through Canada to gear up Americans for war.

What's original about the movie's take on the spin-doctor is that Brean isn't a James Carville or a Lee Atwater. Brean scarcely projects any personality, much less a colorful one, and he won't take credit for his successes -- he just wants to do his job and disappear. He's the political functionary for an age in which no one plays the posterity game; everybody realizes that the nation's attention span has shrunk to minutes, that Americans' collective memory bank is virtually depleted. All he cares about is results. Brean cherishes only his professional reputation.

In the movie's early going, when Brean advises the President's advisors to plant questions about Albania in the press and then "deny, deny, deny," he could be counseling George Bush on Irangate. But there's one huge difference: Brean urges his clients to deny a controversy that doesn't exist, and then, once it's actually been fabricated, to 'fess up to it. De Niro turns in his canniest performance since his sizzling cameo in Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985). His Brean is a treasure trove of comic surprises and a font of evil wisdom. At one point a CIA agent (William H. Macy) figures out the scam. "Two things I know to be true," Macy's spook says. "There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war." Macy does one of his deadpan specialty numbers as the self-righteous agent; in one terse scene, he electrifies the character, giving him the lightning certainty of a human lie detector. But when he faces Brean, the poor guy doesn't know what he's up against. De Niro's understated knowingness envelops all the people around his character -- whether they're from the CIA or the motion picture academy -- like a hilarious existential blob.

While Motss, the Mr. Fix-It of the back lot, responds to snafus with the high-pitched snarl, "This a walk in the park," Brean sits back and assumes a browsing position. Actually, he's speed-reading every situation.

What distinguishes Motss the archetypal mogul from Brean the ultimate insider is that Motss wants to leave a legacy: He still believes in history, even if only the history of movies. Unlike Brean he hates his anonymity. After all his years in Tinseltown, he's still annoyed that an Oscar isn't given for best producer (simply accepting the Oscar for best picture, as producers traditionally do, wouldn't be enough for Motss), and he's outraged that nobody knows what a producer does. He's not solely an image-maker -- he's a showman. Hoffman's acting here may outdo his peak work in 1982's Tootsie. He takes a leap of sympathetic imagination with an unsympathetic character, imbuing him with egotism and tunnel vision that are simultaneously appalling and grandly touching. Nothing in the universe can compare to the travails he has suffered while making movies, like having had to finish a new version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after three of the horsemen die.

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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