14 MARCH 1998, Page 51


Wag the Dog

(15, selected cinemas)

Thank you, Mr President

Mark Steyn

Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog is a satire about spin control — the tail that winds up wagging the dog. In David Mamet and Hilary Henkin's scenario, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman concoct a phoney war with Albania to distract attention from a presidential sex scandal with an under-age girl. All very droll, but nevertheless the film had a lacklustre opening week in America until President Clinton volunteered to serve as the movie's one-man marketing campaign (unlike the Batman and Poca- hontas action figure tie-ins, this one comes with self-lowering pants). The situations are not entirely identical: instead of a phoney war with Albania, Mr Clinton had a phoney war with Iraq; instead of a girl who's under age, he had a girl who's under the desk. But, otherwise, the trajectory is much as you'd expect. Spin-doctor Conrad Brean (De Niro) decides to fake a war and hires Hollywood honcho Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to produce it. Roused from his tanning casket, Motss has a few problems with the concept — 'Are we locked into Albania?' — but finds the offer irresistible.

With De Niro offering yet another of his studies in nondescriptness (an act he's get- ting disturbingly good at), Hoffman sneaks the picture out from under him, with a beautifully pitched performance from his sprayed, shatter-proof hair on down. Stan- ley Motss is a kind of sheepish egomaniac, who reacts to every setback with his stan- dard catchphrase: 'This is nothing!' But Hoffman nails better than anyone the strange vulnerability (in showbusiness at least) of the truly arrogant.

He starts with a 'defining image' for the network news: grainy footage of a peasant girl and her cat fleeing the burning village the Albanians have ravaged. In fact, the peasant is an Equity actress who thinks she's doing a commercial; the cat is a com- puter-generated addition; the burning vil- lage is a bare soundstage in Los Angeles; and, when Hoffman decides the shot needs a little more oomph, 'the Anne Frank sirens' are quickly located in the sound- effects library.

Amid all the general waggishness, the musical jokes are especially good, begin- ning with a 'We Are The World' all-star anthem ('We will guard the American fron- tier/Guard the American Dream'). When a non-existent war hero is taken prisoner in the non-existent war, his message to the folks back home becomes a hit country song: 'Courage, Mom'. In need of a folksy nickname for their lost hero, Hoffman and co. create a scratchy 60-year-old 78 rpm blues record called 'Old Shoe', which the President, addressing the nation, 'remem- bers' from his childhood: these guys are so good they've progressed from faking the present to faking our past, our memories.

Around about this point, you keep wait- ing for the twist in the tail. Instead, Wag just proceeds on its own dogged way. The limitations of the film are established by Anne Heche, America's favourite lesbian, in the third-billed role of presidential aide. Levinson made this film at the same time as he was making Sphere, his underwater thriller with Hoffman, and he's somehow managed to reduce Miss Heche to the same status as 'the girl' in an action adven- ture: she tags along as the guys' sidekick, struggling to keep up, protesting that this or that scheme will never work, and most importantly, marvelling at their daring. She's there only to emphasise the cynicism of the others. In such ways, Wag the Dog purrs, with a smug awareness of just how easy it is to wag the sheep — those upscale movie-goers who like to think of them- selves as savvy sophisticates with a healthy dose of cynicism. Indeed, in its pandering to their savvy sophisticated cynicism, Wag the Dog is shockingly cynical about cyni- cism. But, in its reluctance to take us beyond what we already know, the film eventually runs out of its gleeful energy.

Commentators started referring to the real President's warnings to Iraq as 'the Wag the Dog strategy', but real life is rarely as simple-minded as Hollywood. In the Clinton White House, they had no need to distract attention from the sex scandal with a war. Indeed, they called off the war for that very reason: it would distract from a sex scandal that's given him his highest- ever approval ratings. Who needs body bags coming back from the Gulf? It's only going to hurt the great numbers he's been getting for the oral sex. Wag the Dog's satire pales beside Clinton's endlessly resourceful plot twists, his virtuoso juggling of a hundred potentially explosive bombs: no matter how hard Mamet tries to shrug him off, the real-life President dogs the wag.