NEW YORK — President Clinton’s decision to bomb terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan had Washington tongues wagging Thursday — but not Hollywood’s.
Cynical critics in D.C. and across the country said life was too closely imitating art, in this case the pic “Wag the Dog,” in which a fictional U.S. President’s handlers orchestrate an all-out war to divert attention from a possible sex scandal with a teenager.
In a bizarre coincidence, the pool of journos that accompanies the president and was trailing him during his Martha’s Vineyard vacation had just begun watching “Wag the Dog” when they were called away to cover Clinton’s surprise announcement of military strikes.
But Hollywood, at least that part of it associated with the New Line film from last year, wasn’t talking.
New Line execs, from chairman Robert Shaye and prexy of production Michael De Luca to staff assistants, gave a resounding “no comment” to questions about the parallels between the pic and reality.
“Wag the Dog” director Barry Levinson and his producing partner Paula Weinstein didn’t return calls. Tribeca Films, which is run by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, had no comment. An agent for “Wag” star Dustin Hoffman and his Punch Prods. said he was on vacation and unreachable. Co-scripter David Mamet refused comment.
Only Larry Beinhart, author of the 1993 novel “American Hero,” which served as the basis for the film, had something to say.
“Oh God, it’s like the third rerun,” he said.
“I thought (Clinton) was going to do it on Monday and say it was Iraq and tell Ken Starr he couldn’t come and testify. But today was very bad and doesn’t help politically,” Beinhart said, “which means, unfortunately, that in this case it’s probably real.”
Clinton interrupted a vacation overshadowed by his belated admission of an “inappropriate” relationship with Monica Lewinsky to order the strikes in retaliation for the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
U.S. officials sought to dismiss suggestions that Clinton staged the strikes to deflect criticism of his affair with Lewinsky.
“The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities,” Defense Secretary William Cohen told reporters at a Pentagon briefing, when one journo raised the issue of the movie. “That is the sole motivation. No other consideration has been involved.”
Several Washington politicos — notably Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) — drew direct parallels to the film early in the day, but stepped back from those assertions as the day progressed and more details about Thursday’s military moves became available.
In the movie, a scandal erupts two weeks before election day with allegations that the president has engaged in improper conduct with a “Firefly Girl” — similar to a Girl Scout — while she was touring the White House Oval Office.
Before the scandal causes irreparable damage, a mysterious spin doctor played by Robert De Niro and a Hollywood producer played by Dustin Hoffman deflect attention by fabricating a bigger and better story — a fictional war with Albania that makes the president shine again. Hoffman received an Oscar nomination as best actor for the role.
The film is currently available nationwide on pay per view channels and is currently No. 10 in Video Business magazine’s list of top video rentals. An informal survey of several L.A.-area vid outlets revealed no unusual activity relating to the film Thursday; store staffers said it was too early to detect any increased interest.
As for the PPV activity, Michael Klein, senior VP of programming for Viewer’s Choice, explained that it was a coincidence, “because we schedule three months out.” He said the publicity couldn’t help but boost the PPV.
Peter Seligman, a partner at the Gotham-based praisery Dan Klores & Associates, called Clinton’s PR timing “impeccable.”
“It’s as if the whole thing was scripted,” Seligman said. ‘Maybe someone will buy the rights to this.”
Even independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who is investigating whether Clinton committed perjury or otherwise obstructed justice — which the president denies — in the Lewinsky affair, had a brief reaction.
Asked in Little Rock, Ark., if he had seen the movie, Starr laughed and then told reporters: “I guess I shouldn’t comment, but yes, I’ve seen it.”
(Joe Adalian and Judy Quinn in New York, Marc Graser in Los Angles, Harvey Solomon in Washington, D.C., and Reuters contributed to this report.)