Wag The Dog
Reviewed by: Brian Nigro
Starring: Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, Kirsten Dunst, William H. Macy, Craig T. Nelson, Suzie Plakson / Director: Barry Levinson / Released by: New Line Cinema
“Wag The Dog” is a fictitious story of White House spin doctors concocting a fake war to boost the president’s approval rating and divert attention away from scandal. It’s a great opening premise, but Barry Levinson’s direction and David Mamet’s screenplay hammer away at the same sarcasm and cynicism—until there’s nothing left but that same old sarcasm and cynicism.
In the wake of a generic (and unidentified) President’s misconduct with a minor, crackerjack politico Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is brought in by a White House press agent (Anne Heche) for damage control. The two of them turn to a jaded Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) for help; together, they literally “produce” a war in Albania and accompanying PR campaign. And, like magic, the president’s approval ratings skyrocket.
From an artistic standpoint, “Wag The Dog” is vastly superior to the similarly-themed, utterly patronizing “Mad City” (which also starred Dustin Hoffman) from a few months ago, yet it stil leaves much to be desired. One major problem, besides the extensive profanity: We never see the general public’s reaction or supposed gullibility in any scenes, not even crowds in the streets watching TV. Virtually every scene features DeNiro or Hoffman, and subsequently, there’s no evidence for the audience that their spin-doctoring is even working. “Wag The Dog” feels incomplete.
Did the president ever get re-elected? (That was, after all, the point of the fake war) I’m always skeptical of any movie that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.
Regarding the political content, “Wag The Dog” is not at all suggestive of the current White House administration. That is a very erroneous assumption. There are none-too-subtle references—few complimentary—to Iran/Contra and Granada, the Gulf War and yellow ribbons. Many viewers, if not offended by the frequent profanity, will be offended by what this movie has to say about the Reagan-Bush era.
“Wag The Dog”, incidentally, finished principal photography in 29 days, compared to two or three months for standard product. All the profanity (and it’s mild) and fake war footage, though, was left intact. I wonder what this would have looked like had it been more fully developed beyond 29 days.
Year of Release—1997