Made for pathos

The medium is the massacre in two new films about war in prime time.

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Politics makes for strange bedfellows. But the union of politics and television ranks as one of the oddest -- and most inevitable -- couplings of the past half-century, drastically altering how political events are viewed. Two new films, Welcome to Sarajevo and Wag the Dog, deal very differently with the marriage of politics and television, but both focus squarely on television's ability to magnify and distort political events, and how those who control this powerful image-making device can amass their own brand of power.

Welcome to Sarajevo is based on Natasha's Story, a memoir by British television journalist Michael Nicholson about his tenure in Bosnia and what led him to help one young girl he met in an orphanage escape the war.

Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce expands on Nicholson's narrative, trying to blend several interconnected stories into a portrait of Sarajevo during the siege. But the end result is a muddled and conflicted film which manages to take a bloody and vicious conflict and make it bloodless (which is not to say the film skimps on gore: dismembered bodies and corpses are readily displayed).

Michael Winterbottom (Jude) directs Welcome to Sarajevo in a paradoxical style -- equal parts reserved distance and impassioned bombast -- that mirrors the attitude of his main character, Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane). As a reporter, Henderson is concerned with finding a "hook" to make the viewers back home sit up and pay attention, but in Dillane's impassive performance it's difficult to tell if this is because he feels what's happening in Sarajevo is of vital importance, or because he doesn't like being bumped out of the lead spot in the broadcast by the latest royal marital squabble.

Henderson prides himself on his professional objectivity, unlike his perceived rival, Flynn (Woody Harrelson), a hotshot American television reporter made famous by his grandstanding bravery and his ability to interject himself into a story. The chilly, snobbish Henderson, who hasn't even bothered to learn the rudiments of the Bosnian language (something Flynn has done), inexplicably becomes emotionally involved with the plight of children at a Sarajevo orphanage, making them the focus of his regular coverage. In a moment that seems more flippant than portentous, Henderson promises the tough, tomboyish Emira (Emira Nusevic) that he'll get her out of Sarajevo.

Winterbottom, who's fond of heavy-handed irony ("Don't Worry, Be Happy" over the orphans' faces), misses the biggest one. Throughout Welcome to Sarajevo, fictional characters and real political figures alike (actual news footage is interwoven into the story) say that Bosnians must overcome the idea that the West will intervene and save them. Yet that's exactly what the film turns out to be, an extended (and emotionally stunted) rescue fantasy.

Even in its few moments of world-weary gallows humor, Welcome to Sarajevo can't come close to the hard, bright cynicism of Wag the Dog. Televised images of war are just one weapon in the arsenal of spin doctor extraordinaire Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who specializes in the molding of public opinion.

Brean's abilities are put to the test with his latest client: the president of the United States. It seems that the president took a particular shine to a pubescent Firefly Girl visiting the White House and the resulting scandal could keep him from being re-elected. Presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) and Brean elicit the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to manufacture a distraction, in this case a made-for-television, ersatz war.

Based on Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero, Wag the Dog gets its bite from Hilary Henkin (Romeo Is Bleeding) and David Mamet's screenplay and Barry Levinson's no-frills, on-target direction. The film's premise is wickedly simple: that mass public manipulation is part and parcel of American politics, and that television, with its immediacy and perceived intimacy, is the best tool for this.

De Niro's subdued Brean is an enticingly self-assured enigma, but Hoffman is truly superb as the puffed-up yet insecure Motss, a producer who wants nothing so much as to be acknowledged for his accomplishments.

With a host of clever secondary characters (Woody Harrelson shows up as a manufactured war hero), Wag the Dog takes familiar elements from recent history -- especially Bosnia and the Gulf War -- and tweaks them to fit into its skewed worldview. People remember the picture, says one of Wag the Dog's proficient spinmeisters about manufacturing images, even when they've forgotten the war.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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