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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Truth Stranger Than Hollywood Fiction

Wag the Dog," an excellent film in almost every respect, suffers from the same unlucky fate that befell the equally estimable "Primary Colors:" It delivers a fictional satire on American politics in a year when the real thing hasbecome absurd beyond all caricature.

Even as "Wag" rolls across the screen at Kodak Cinema World in Moscow, spinning out its taut, acerbic tale of presidential scandal and spin-control, the real-life Washington finds itself convulsed once more by "Monicagate."

August tribunes of the people gather in Congressional corridors, gravely mulling the possibility of impeaching a president for having oral sex, while FBI scientists lay aside trivial work like solving murders and instead devote huge resources to the examination of a dress that may or may not contain year-old samples of certain Arkansas seed.

Pity the poor filmmakers who attempt satire in such a surreal atmosphere. "Wag," like "Colors," may be better appreciated in later years, when it can stand outside the context of these ridiculous times. But even now, director Barry Levinson's film affords much pleasure, not the least of which is watching brilliant actors like Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman in top form, working from a script by David Mamet.

The burden of the story is this: An incumbent president faces a crippling sex scandal in the midst of a re-election campaign -- he's being accused of fondling a Girl Scout-like "Firefly Girl." To save the day, he calls in the celebrated (not to mention ruthless) spin doctor, Conrad Brean (DeNiro).

Brean assembles a crack team, whose goal is to create an effective diversion from the scandal, something that will rally the country around the president and make him look stately, noble and not-at-all like a man who fondles Firefly Girls.

What better than a war? Not a real war, mind you, but a war fought entirely in the media, through sound bites, film clips (artfully crafted in studios), carefully orchestrated leaks of false information, ad campaigns, touching theme songs -- the whole bag of tricks. (This setup is not all that far from what really happened in the Gulf War, when the Bush administration hired a top PR firm to "package" the war for the viewers at home.)

Brean hires Stanley Motss, a top Hollywood producer, played to tan-machined perfection by Hoffman. Their plan to create a hero of the imaginary conflict goes slightly awry when the soldier they pick proves less than exemplary (Woody Harrelson is excellent here); and government agents, left out of the loop, come snooping around (this was before they got so busy with Monica's dress, no doubt). But for the most part, Brean and Motss keep a masterful hand on the mass manipulation.

The movie is sharp, witty and focused. And it's especially enjoyable to see DeNiro playing against type. His Brean is cold, glib, buttoned-down, almost prim, as he works his wiles with deadly efficiency. Hoffman, whose performance was nominated for an Academy Award, is also a treat as the thoroughly Hollywood pro who gets so caught up in the work that he can't see its dangers -- to the country's moral fiber, or to himself. There are also winning turns by Denis Leary, Willie Nelson and Anne Heche, plus a great cameo by gospel-blues singer Pop Staples.

"Wag the Dog" is a fine minor work; It bears down hard and thoughtfully on its subject, does its job cleanly and often subtly, provokes a few laughs and many wry smiles -- then cuts you loose to think about the bitter truths it has portrayed.