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STRANGER THAN FICTION <br> FOR TWO NEW SATIRICAL RELEASES, THE TIMING COULDN'T BE BETTER

A GOOD couple of weeks for political satirists and for all the "ugly, mannish, porky, manipulative, lying" women they so love to dismember.

Speaking of which, two films recently out on video deal with spinning the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune re: a smiling prez and the gals he's prone to. One is "Wag the Dog," the political satire full of Dustin Hoffman directed by Barry Levinson. The other is "Primary Colors," a movie chock full of that grinning bubba, John Travolta. It is based on the notorious and best-selling roman a clef of the same name.

I didn't expect to enjoy "Wag the Dog" very much, but I did. This is due in part to its very fly take on the D.C.-Hollywood axis and to a fine cast. In addition to Hoffman, it includes Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Andrea Martin, Craig T. Nelson and Woody Harrelson. The screenplay is by Hillary Henkin and David Mamer and is based on the novel "American Hero" by Larry Benhart.

The movie is one of those cringe-while-you-laugh-out-loud things, an outrageous gallop around the Beltway. It may seem insane at first, with its mythical terrorists and non-existent weapons of mass destruction, but the scenario is a mere extension of current political market practice.

Desperate to draw attention away from the sexual peccadilloes of a raunchy president who allegedly has molested a Girl Scout touring the White House, spinmeisters employ the talents of a well-known movie producer to devise a faux event war with which to distract the public.

He comes up with a war with Albania. The premise struck me as outrageous at first, but the plan is quite plausible, given the current state of the media and ethics in general. It isn't a reach at all, in fact, but a glorious celebration of real-time politico-corporate deceit that reaches nadir after nadir as it spins us into an almost incredible vortex of duplicity and greed. If our greasy corporations can destroy the environment of assorted Third World countries, why not a war with Albania?

The shifty, unseen president is the bad boy of the piece, but it is the gullible press that is the target of the most blistering satire, however. Reporters here not only don't ask impertinent questions, the questions don't even occur to them. The press is seconded by the naive and jingoistic American public, which is dull-witted and unquestioning when it comes to anything that looks like a news clip and celebrates imperial America.

Much to laugh at here -- video "news" items featuring a desperate "Albanian refugee" who becomes an icon for America's defense of the little guy (girl, actually, one about the same age as the molested), backlot shots of the "war," a political commercial by the president's political enemy (Craig T. Nelson) run over a recording of Maurice Chevalier singing "Sank Heaven for Little Girls."

Hoffman is excellent as insecure, Coppertoned Hollywood mogul with a poofy hairdo, snappy outfits and a "vision." "My best work!" he proclaims ecstatically as he traipses about like a latter day Robert Evans. He's dogged by the president's kitchen cabinet, which includes Robert DeNiro as the world-weary adviser who has a hard time reining in the dogs of war once they've inspired patriotic blood lust. Watch for the insanely patriotic popular song a la "The Ballad of the Green Berets" written by Willie Nelson and performed by a chorale of pop and rock artists. You can almost smell Mariah Carey's musk.

Hey, I liked it. It made me laugh out loud. It's a good thing.

"Primary Colors," which is based on the first presidential campaign our real life president, is also a hoot. John Travolta, as you may have heard, does Clinton up to a tee as a lovable, charming candidate with a wife who is smarter and more realistic than he is.

And forgive me my smirk but "Primary Colors" is the best political satire Hollywood has horked out in 20 years. Did we get a satire about Iran-Contra, by the way? Now there was subversion of the Constitution!

Anyway, this savage little number, based on Joe Klein's "anonymous" novel, takes us back to the time when an ambitious young Southern governor runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. It gallops us through several primaries, kissing the air at recognizable real-life figures as it peers at the public and private lives of the candidate and his extraordinarily savvy wife.

In addition to an easily satirized governor, played by Travolta in a very funny, charming take on Bill Clinton, there is Mike Nichols' fine direction and Elaine May's marvelous and scathingly sarcastic script to raise this one up above the rock. Emma Thompson is a sympathetic and rock-solid "Hillary," and though she presents her as tough, smart and vulnerable, she misses the humor and warmth of the real thing.

Though it casts aspersions on the candidate's own spin-doctoring and other manipulative operations in service to fame and power, it is also a rabid take on the American political process in general. Billy Bob Thornton plays a cracker political operative, Kathy Bates as a emotionally disturbed lesbian spin doctor and Adrian Lester slips in as a quiet, idealistic supporter (supposedly George Stephanopolos) who actually represents the rest of us as he makes his way through a vortex of cynical lunacy.

"Primary Colors" is thoroughly enjoyable if one can say that about a singularly anti-intellectual campaign that ignored significant social issues while provoking disingenuous debate about the "economy" and guess who's sex life.

WAG THE DOG 1998, R, 96 minutes, New Line Home Video (in release)
PRIMARY COLORS 1998, R, 138 minutes, Universal Studios Home Video (to be released Sept. 8)