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Argo Before Argo

"Wag the Dog" was the Hollywood Satire Ben Affleck Should Have Made

Warner Brothers

So there I was the other evening, mulling over the oddities of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and wondering if the affection for Ben Affleck could get his strange movie to be Best Picture, when a lot of truths were revealed to me. As I was talking to the dog I noticed that Wag the Dog was coming up on the television, and I was tickled by the coincidence. “Oh yes,” I said to the dog, “I rather liked this one when it came out.” I thought maybe, with the title, I could get him interested. He went to fart and then to sleep, but I had a ball.

Wag the Dog was made in 1997. That’s a long time ago, when Bill Clinton was president and Kim Kardashian was sweet seventeen. This was before the end of the world (and the relaunch). We were worrying about the millennium. Yet it was clear from Wag the Dog that some smart people not only knew the game was up, they had seen that the only cool response was being nonchalant with it. So it’s a story about a nation that resembles the U.S., two weeks before an election when the president, hoping for his second term, is caught in a compromising situation with a young girl.

The White House calls in Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), an infamous spin doctor in a bow-tie, to run interference and public relations. He recognizes with the acumen that has kept America great that a diversion is required, and a big one. He decides that it’s going to take a war, but inasmuch as Brean is not a belligerent or bloodthirsty man, he reckons to stage the war in a small country, so out of the way that few can find it on the map—we are talking Albania. This is a scam of a high order, and it has to be managed quickly, so Brean engages a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), who puts all he has learned in making pictures to the service of the nation. (If only Ronald Reagan had been so single-mindedly pragmatic. All too often he allowed ideology to get in the way of scenario.) I won’t tell you more of the story because even if you saw the film once you’ve likely forgotten it. But the spectacle of Motss treating every roadblock and disaster with a blithe “This is nothing,” will only feel more delicious and demented now that wars are real and the problems are something. Even Albanians would love this film.

Wag the Dog did not go unnoticed in 1997. It was well reviewed and did very nice business. The film won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and Hoffmann was nominated for a best actor Oscar. Jack Nicholson won for As Good As It Gets, which only shows how long ago 1997 was. In hindsight, it is a daft miracle that Hoffman didn’t win for a study in nonchalance and empty style that is far more intriguing than his Oscar-wining performances in Kramer v. Kramer and Rain Man, both of which have a crushing sincerity. And if you think I’m exaggerating, just go back and look. Hoffman’s Motss drifts across screen like a perfume. His intelligence and his charm are possessed by an insanity that would never be certified because they are as impressive as his haircut and his clothes. This is our own madness, and it is like saying, “This is nothing,” to the latest global warming data.

So who made this film? Well, it got another Oscar nomination, for best adapted screenplay, which went to Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. But there would be ill-feeling over that credit. Henkin wrote a first draft (from a novel by Larry Beinhart), but the film’s director, Barry Levinson, was indignant over the co-credit because he said Mamet had done the dialogue and created Motss. Sixteen years later, does it matter? Yes. For this may be the lightest, sweetest thing Mamet has ever done, and it’s a shame to see his contribution going to waste when his endless, mannered loudmouth diatribes are praised.

Was the film directed? Of course it was, and Levinson is a top of the line professional with a dry sense of humor. This is the man who made DinerBugsy and Homicide: Life on the Street, but he’s done some far-fetched stinkers too (“They are nothing”). I give him credit for the whole thing and for his dexterity with a fine supporting cast: lemon-zest Anne Heche (who has nothing do, but manages to be riveting), Dennis Leary, William H. Macy, and Woody Harrelson. But there’s another credit, missing from the film. For a few people (about 27,000) there is the privileged sense that Hoffman’s Motss is both a tribute to and a satire of Robert Evans, the legend.

Evans has so many absurd claims to fame: he was married to Ali McGraw, and six others; he was or could say he was the guiding light on The Godfather, Love Story, and Chinatown; for costume and hair he had no rival; for chutzpah he probably has a royalty on all but Hungarian use of the habit; he had a secretary who just worked on keeping his social calendar straight when he had a dozen or so lady friends—not one of whom has ever bad-mouthed him. He had a foul mouth and a syrupy use of profanity. He is “the Kid” who stayed in the picture and at the age of 82 he is still a kid, still tanned and still outrageous and essential. Hoffman liked him, which means he must have despaired of Evans many times over the years. And the fondness is there on film and it is as funny as Jack Benny or Cary Grant.

What’s more, it’s Argo. I don’t doubt that in the liberation of those six hostages who made it out to the Canadian embassy in Tehran, there was a notional movie set up to cover their extraction. Sort of. Moreover, the best things in Argo—so entertaining that you are morose whenever the film goes back to Iran—involve John Goodman and Alan Arkin setting up an impossible and incredible film project because that’s what they’ve been doing all their lives. That comedy is worth the price of admission for Argo, but next to De Niro, Heche and Hoffman, it’s like John Philip Sousa following Schubert. And there’s nothing wrong with Sousa if you like that sort of thing, but Schubert and Hoffman’s Motss are consolations forever and worth saving for the actual end of the world. Whenever that is.