In the opening scene of Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, Robert De Niro arrives at the White House and takes several flights of stairs down, down, down to a darkly lit bunker reminiscent of the Situation Room in Dr. Strangelove. With his funny little hat and his fuzzy-wuzzy beard, De Niro could be a college professor. Actually, he's Conrad Brean, a behind-the-scenes spin doctor known as Mr. Fix-It. This particular time, Brean's been brought to the White House because the president either did or didn't--Brean doesn't care which--fondle a Firefly Girl in the Oval Office during the three minutes he was left alone with her. It's a mere two weeks before the election. Brean has his work cut out for him. How about a war? That would distract everybody. Not a real war, but a war the American people can nevertheless believe in--a TV war, like the one in the Persian Gulf, only this time the whole thing will be faked. Brean sets up a meeting with Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a big-time Hollywood producer who, when we first lay eyes on him, is stretched out on a tanning bed, like some kind of reverse vampire. Immaculately groomed and fantastically rich, Motss is so serenely self-infatuated that the whole world seems like his personal back lot. Having commandeered the Oscar telecast for several years, he's more than capable of putting together Brean's little war, which Brean insists on calling a pageant. And starring as the enemy? Albania. Shot in 29 days on the Hollywood equivalent of a shoestring ($15 million), Wag the Dog isn't what you'd expect from three Tinseltown power brokers like Levinson, De Niro and Hoffman. Brashly cynical, the movie could be said to wag, if not quite bite, the hand that feeds them. Levinson, the director of Rain Man, Bugsy and last year's soporific Sleepers, has found a loose-as-a-goose camera style to complement David Mamet and Hilary Henkin's rapid-fire script, which seems equally savvy about Washington and its West Coast doppelganger, Hollywood. As for De Niro and Hoffman, who've never really worked together before, they're like a couple of kids in a sandbox, their scenes together a wry, dry mixture of cooperation and competition. For the first hour or so, Wag the Dog is the most enjoyable political satire since Bob Roberts--a civics lesson in how to fool all the people some of the time. We watch, in something resembling awe, as Brean and Motss deftly manipulate the media. A denial that B-3 bombers have been mobilized is followed by a denial that B-3 bombers even exist. (And, of course, they don't.) Meanwhile, Motss turns a young actress holding a bag of Tostitos into a news clip of an Albanian peasant girl cradling her kitten as the village behind her goes up in smoke. (Muslim fundamentalists are supposedly taking over the country.) And, down in Nashville, country-and-western stars gather together to record a "We Are the World"-like pledge of allegiance.
The movie's at its best in the early going, when Brean and Motss are making history--okay, a historical pageant--out of thin air. After that, it's as if the filmmakers don't know quite what to do with the machine they've set in motion. Woody Harrelson shows up as a crazy convict hired to impersonate a war hero, but it's not clear why Brean and Motss get stuck with the guy; they seem too smart to do something that dumb. Rarely less than entertaining, Wag the Dog isn't a perfect score. Nor is it devastating satire. It prefers to take pot shots at a political landscape that is increasingly enthralled by show business. "I could have gone this way," Hoffman's Motss says while running his hand over the desk once occupied by a former actor from California. "It's just a change of wardrobe."