Wag the Dog (1997)

Wag the Dog

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Wag the Dog is getting a lot of attention for echoing the recent “crisis in the White House”. Fortunately, the movie came first… it’s not an echo.

In less than two hours, director Barry Levinson challenges us with political profundities, startling revelations about media power, side-splitting rapid-fire hot-shot conversations, and subtle disturbing subtexts about the future of government and news. It’s half a brilliant political satire, half a wacky outrageous comedy of errors. The first half works, the second half doesn’t.

It is spooky how the art mirrors reality or how, in this case, reality seems to be mirroring art. (Is it prophecy when the big screen shows us where we’re headed and, by the time the movie finishes playing, it’s already happening?!)

Without Dustin Hoffman, this movie may not have worked. In his funniest, most energetic performance since Tootsie, he’s a Hollywood producer called in to make the President look good when the dirt starts showing. Robert De Niro turns in an inspired performance as the confident, brooding spin-doctor that calls him up. Together they strive to distract the American public from a presidential sex scandal by inventing a new American war with Albania. “Albania? Why Albania?” “Why not?” Sounds crazy, but it will scare you how possible it all seems when you watch them turn politics into show business so the public can swallow the lies. Before long, the American public is rallying against the evil empire of Albania, without ever investigating to find that the nation did not, nor was it capable of, threatening us.

That, I think, is the benefit of films like this… to force us to think next time we read the newspapers or watch the news.

When Woody Harrelson shows up halfway through the movie as a “war hero” with a screw or two (or ten) loose, the story becomes less plausible, more erratic, and degenerates into a much less interesting caper rife with silly and sophomoric jokes. David Mamet’s script starts strong, then fumbles the ending.

Paranoia is a bad thing, but ignorance is worse. So let Wag the Dog get under your skin. Watch, think, learn, and go forth wiser. The big media machine that informs our nation is not morally bankrupt, but it is frequently suspect, and this film shows just how easily our attentions and sympathies can be swayed.

For further brain-teasers on the subject, I’d recommend renting Bob Roberts, a film that shows just how much show business goes into political campaigning.

Director – Barry Levinson
Writers – Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, based on the book ”American Hero” by Larry Beinhart
Director of photography - Robert Richardson
Editor – Stu Linder
Music – Mark Knopfler
Production designer – Wynn Thomas
Producers – Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson
New Line Cinema. 120 minutes. Rated R.
STARRING: Dustin Hoffman (Stanley Motss), Robert De Niro (Conrad Brean), Anne Heche (Winifred Ames), Denis Leary (Fad King), Woody Harrelson (Sgt. William Schumann) and Willie Nelson (Johnny Green).

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