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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Political satire is a tricky business. How many editorial cartoons do you actually laugh at? How many would you laugh at for 90 minutes straight? That's the challenge for would-be satirical filmmakers, one that few of them meet. Nevertheless, we're in the midst of a mini-boom of political japes at the moment, with Wag the Dog in theaters and Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (with John Travolta doing a chin-fondling Clinton impersonation) forthcoming.

To see how hard it is to do this sort of thing well, consider the contrast between Wag the Dog and a new HBO video release, The Second Civil War (1997). Both have impressive rosters of big names, some of them the same—Barry Levinson, who directed Wag the Dog, is executive producer of The Second Civil War, and rapid-fire comic Denis Leary is in both films. But where Wag the Dog takes a pretty obvious premise and makes it edgy and funny (see review), The Second Civil War is aimless and boring. Directed by Spielberg protegé Joe Dante (Gremlins) and starring second-tier luminaries like Phil Hartman, Beau Bridges, and James Coburn, it's a silly film (about Idaho threatening to secede from the union) that makes the horrible mistake of taking itself seriously. Since its moral points are so trite—Americans take democracy for granted, TV news is shallow and opportunistic, blah blah blah—the film's only chance at success is to make you laugh. It doesn't. James Earl Jones provides the portentous narration, and you get the feeling nobody bothered to tell him this was supposed to be a comedy.

The 1979 film Being There (R) also had a fairly simple-minded premise—a mentally impaired gardener is mistaken for a sage and becomes a presidential adviser—but Peter Sellers turned the central role into a showcase of hilarious understatement (Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man and Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump are inferior variations on the same theme). And Jack Warden is a lot of fun as a president who's impotent in every sense of the word.

Without question, the touchstones of cinematic political satire are Stanley Kubrick's coldly funny Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Charlie Chaplin's naive but bold The Great Dictator (1940). Both reflect the tumult of their times—the Cold War and World War II—and both were audacious in daring to ridicule deadly serious events. But what makes them work decades later is their timeless comic insight. When Chaplin, as European dictator Adenoid Hynkel, dances a domination pas de deux with an inflatable world globe, it says more about the roots of megalomania than a dozen psychological dissertations.

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