Wag the Dog (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Why does a dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail was smarter, it would wag the dog."

Hollywood and Presidential politics - perfect together. Anyone who doubts this simple maxim will face a challenge to their opinion when they see Wag the Dog, the hilarious new satire from director Barry Levinson. For, although this film is one of the funniest comedies of the year, it also carries a serious, thought-provoking message about the relationship between politics and mass-market entertainment. This is one of Levinson's best films, and the screenplay, co-penned by noted writer David Mamet (along with Hilary Henkin), is brilliantly on-target.

The premise is relatively simple. Only two weeks before election day, a sitting president is hit by a sex scandal. A brief dalliance with a Firefly Girl becomes public knowledge, and now his 17% lead is about to plummet. Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), one of the President's top aides, calls in spin doctor extraordinary, Conrad Bream (Robert De Niro). Conrad goes to work immediately, deciding that the best way to get the public's mind off the Firefly Girl is to give them something bigger to think about. "Change the story, change the lead" is his motto, so he decides to manufacture a war against Albania. Why Albania? Because the name sounds sinister and no one in the United States knows anything about the country.

Conrad decides that he and Winifred can't do it alone. They need help, so they go to big-time Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). He has never won an Academy Award, but he's more than willing to help stage the war. They'll need slogans, a theme song, merchandising links, and sympathetic characters. Soon, carefully-controlled leaks to the press make it to the evening news, and everyone is reporting about the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Albania, even though no troops have been moved and no shots have been fired. Actual battles don't matter, however, because, if it's on television, it must be real.

The ones wagging the dog are clearly the spin doctors: Conrad, Stanley, and Winifred. But who is the dog? The media, who eagerly lap up every drop of milk spilled by the White House press staff? The American public, ever-eager for the latest made-for-television war/entertainment? The answer is likely both. And, while Levinson and Mamet are clearly stretching reality beyond the bounds of credibility for the purposes of this satire, there's more than a kernel of truth in the core theme. Political campaigns are often run like Hollywood motion pictures. Television is critical to a candidate's success. And the media loves a good war - just look at the current frenzy that's occurring as hostilities with Iraq rise towards a crescendo.

Levinson directs Wag the Dog with a sure hand. The director has a spotty resume - he has been responsible for winners like Tin Men and Rain Man (also with Hoffman) and losers like Toys. This time around, he's in complete control of the material. Meanwhile, Mamet has honed his pen to its sharpest to systematically slice apart targets ranging from television news reporting methods to the political process. While doing so, he has come up with some innovative interpretations of various recent historical events. For example, who recalls how soon after the Beirut disaster the United States "invaded" Grenada?

The actors all play their roles with zeal. De Niro, getting a chance to essay a character who's not a gangster or a heavy, is delightful, and it's easy to believe that Conrad is the best in the business. If I needed a spin doctor, he'd be first on my list. Hoffman matches him scene for scene as the sleazy-but-ambitious producer. The actor almost never turns in a bad performance, but this is his best in several years, eclipsing what he did in Mamet's American Buffalo. Anne Heche, who has been in the news for her personal life, is capable as the proverbial dumb blond. Woody Harrelson is wonderfully thick doing his best Billy Bob Thornton impression. Cameos include Kirsten Dunst as an actress hired to play an Albanian refugee, William H. Macy as CIA agent Young, and Craig T. Nelson as Senator John Neal, the President's challenger. It is also worth noting that Levinson got around the tricky task of casting the President by never showing his face. This is entirely appropriate, since everything we learn about the man is a shadowy, insubstantial fabrication.

To avoid making Wag the Dog sound too much like an intellectual challenge, let me make this clarification: the movie is intelligent, but it's also a lot of fun. This is the kind of film that you can laugh and think your way through. I look forward to seeing Wag the Dog another time, and I think I'll enjoy it as much, if not more. No matter what your political persuasion is, or how cynically you regard the goings-on in Washington, you will be entertained. Let's just hope Wag the Dog isn't too close to the mark in its depiction of specific events.

Wag the Dog (United States, 1997)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1997
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1997-12-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1