It was a little like The Twilight Zone,” says director Barry Levinson about Bill Clinton's latest sexual red alert. “I came into the kitchen to read the paper, and there's a scandal about a young girl and the White House in it, and the possibility of war with Iraq. I expected Rod Serling to walk in and set it up, that's how nutty it was.”
Levinson, 55, can perhaps be forgiven his moment of deja vu, for not even The Manchurian Candidate approaches his film Wag the Dog's prescience in matters of presidential politics. Mere weeks after the premiere of Levinson's story about a White House sex scandal and a diversionary, media-simulated war with Albania, Americans were stepping into kitchens all over the country to read of Monica Lewinsky's alleged East Wing escapades – and of an imminent “showdown” with Iraq.
The Marin County resident is a busy man these days, publicizing his science-fiction thriller Sphere, which opens next week, executive producing TV's Homicide and producing a Hollywood revival of Howard Korder's play Search and Destroy at the Tamarind Theater (see New Theater Reviews). Still, that dog's tail keeps wagging, and the Clinton-Lewinsky media firestorm has given the movie's modest box-office take a noticeable boost – which continues to put this film in the center of interviews with Levinson. “The Washington Post said we were naive and that Wag the Dog was a stupid title,” he recalls with obvious glee. “Two weeks later 'Wag the Dog Syndrome' entered the lexicon!” The Weekly caught up with its creator at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he was finishing up a day of press-junket interviews for Sphere by signing his name in gold marker on the movie's autograph-edition posters.
“You know what the problem is right now?” he says of the current state of the Clinton-Lewinsky story. “The whole thing is not unlike a movie that suddenly doesn't make sense halfway through and you go, 'Well, this isn't working for me. Good premise, but it's out of control.' I think that applies to this – an interesting story, but we go, 'Whoa, wait a minute, the whole thing's gone haywire, you've lost me.'”
One thing that's lost many observers is Clinton's unshakable popularity ratings through this murky affair – the day we spoke to Levinson, the scandal was already off the front page and the president's approval rating had soared to 73 percent, despite two weeks of edifying stories about perky Monica's presidential kneepads and cum-stained dress.
“The story burned itself out and isn't going anywhere now,” Levinson says with a dramaturge's weary assessment. “We're already tired of it, and a backlash has come from the fact that too much information was incorrect. The semen on the dress – did anyone say, 'Wait a minute – she kept the dress? She never had it dry-cleaned?' No one asked these questions, and that's when people said, 'Whoooa, this story's out of control.'”
Among the many ironies buried just below the surface of the Clinton-Lewinsky story is the fact that some people believe Wag the Dog has made it more difficult, if not impossible, for Clinton to attack Iraq over its weapons-inspection policy at this time. Levinson laughs at the suggestion his film has limited Clinton's options and says that while action against Saddam may have come sooner without Wag the Dog, ultimately the administration will do what it believes is necessary and sees this as unfinished business left over from the Bush administration.
“With Saddam the first time, they said, 'Let's not take out Hitler because we may end up with someone worse.' There could be someone worse than Hitler? What did you expect 'Hitler' to do for the next four years – become a good guy?”
While it may be hard for any administration's spin-doctors to reanimate Saddam as the multipurpose villain he was in 1991, the public seems to have identified the media as the hidden bad guys behind the Clinton-Lewinsky mess, seeing little difference between them and Wag the Dog's stretch-limo'd, cell-phone-flipping spin-surgeons. Levinson maintains that while the public is indeed suspicious of the media and their own never-ending self-analysis, he also believes this fallout is an inevitable part of our own techno-cultural evolution.
“In a sense,” he says, “we are investigating a very new phenomenon – the electronic media. We are only 50 years into a form that never existed before, and with it come all these problems of which we try to make sense. With the electronic global village come all the things that are a part of a village – something happens, then there's rumor, then gossip. Soon it's Whoom! Back and forth, all over the world, swirling all around us until no one knows where fact and fiction lie anymore.”
Levinson believes that ultimately we'll adjust to and begin to make sense of this electronic revolution. Perhaps we already have. With the president's rating remarkably high following his tour de force State of the Union performance, the economy booming, a balanced budget in the offing and Iraq – The Sequel looming as an inevitability, Americans are cutting Clinton yards of slack; even if the allegations blowing around our Ice Storm president's after-hours sex life are true, it seems we are willing to let him do as he will, once he's off the clock. “Maybe we're getting a little more perspective, a little more maturity,” Levinson sighs. “For years now we've been holding people in public life to an unrealistic standard. Maybe people are suddenly saying, 'All right, that's enough, I don't care what he did with anyone, whether it's true or not.'”
And how, as a director, would Levinson stage the scandal?
“The way it's playing out is probably less dramatic than you'd like,” he says, “but it is ultimately the sanest avenue to take. O.J. played for a year, but that was a murder and it also spun off into all kinds of other areas, keeping it fresh. Anyway, I don't want to further blur the lines between policy and what a director thinks should take place. It's bad enough that the lines are blurred between the public and private life, between politics and Hollywood!”