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Wag the Dog

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Wag the Dog

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro
Director: Barry Levinson
Rated: R
RunTime: 97 Minutes
Release Date: December 1997
Genres: Comedy, Drama


*Also starring: Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy, Andrea Martin, Michael Belson, Suzanne Cryer, John Michael Higgins



Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

In politics, image is absolutely everything. Early in "Wag The Dog," someone challenges a top-level Presidential spin doctor about truth and he snaps "The truth? I'll tell you about truth. I saw the first draft of the Warren Commission Report. It said Kennedy was killed by a drunk driver." "Wag The Dog" is a hilarious black comedy about people so far removed from morals that questions of right or wrong never even enter their minds. Their only consideration is the effectiveness of their elaborate deceptions, and who gets a cut of the merchandising profits. Cynical? Of course, but Barry Levinson's crackerjack direction maintains such a giddy momentum that there's really no time to reflect on how awful these people are. Instead, you just sit back and enjoy their brazen scheming. Here's the set-up. 11 days before the election, the incumbent President, who has enjoyed a 17% lead in the polls, is accused of hitting on an underage girl during a White House tour. Within hours, his challenger (Craig T. Nelson) has crafted devastating new TV ads, set to the tune of "Thank Heavens For Little Girls." Quickly, Presidential assistant Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) calls in damage control expert Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro,) who reasons that the only way for the President to be re-elected is if they create a crisis big enough to divert the nation's attention from the scandal. Perhaps a war, maybe with Albania. "Why Albania?" asks Ames. "Why not," laughs Brean. To orchestrate the pretend war, he enlists the aid of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman,) who is more than happy to help. "You know, there's not an Academy Award for producers," he moans, "Why is that? Do they think these things produce themselves?" Motss quickly plots out the scenario for the crisis, then pulls together his experts to work on the really important stuff; the war's official slogan, theme song and merchandising tie-ins. When "that yellow ribbon business" is mentioned, Ames interrupts to explain that the yellow ribbons were a naturally occurring phenomenon. She stops short though, when she notices Brean smiling wearily at her naiveté. And so the scam begins, with Brean instructing a White House Press Secretary to tell reporters that there is absolutely no truth to the rumors about problems in Albania relating to the B-3 bomber. When reminded that there is no B-3 bomber, Brean smiles confidently and says, "Exactly." The White House press corps dutifully responds to the bait, and within hours the nation is riveted to their TV sets, watching the latest on the crisis in Albania. David Mamet and Hilary Henkin's screenplay, based on the book by Larry Beinhart, is incredibly slick and fast-moving, operating on the assumption that movie-goers are savvy enough to roll with the concept. And, thanks to the surreal political realities of today, the absurdist story seems all too possible. Barry Levinson is a uneven director, turning out a few great works ("Rain Man") and some real dogs ("Toys",) but he's in top form here. He shot "Wag The Dog" in just 29 days, and the film has an immediacy that keeps the proceedings buoyant. His camera work displays a breezy confidence and a great sense of play. It's obvious the director was having a wonderful time turning out this wicked little film. Of course, it would be hard not to have fun with a cast like this. Anne Heche has a beguiling effervescence as the president's assistant. Winifred Ames may be new to deception at such a massive scale, but she hops right in and does her part. Robert De Niro exudes an ominous confidence as the man making the big decisions. His exact title is never divulged; you simply understand that when things go wrong, he's the guy you call to fix them. His role is much like Harvey Keitel's suave mob character in "Pulp Fiction," which makes perfect sense in this perverse context. Adding to the lunacy is Woody Harrelson in a deliciously twisted cameo as the designated hero for the bogus war. But despite the fine performances of the rest of the cast, it's Dustin Hoffman who steals the show with his Oscar-worthy portrayal of producer Stanley Motss. Rich, spoiled and self-obsessed, Motss is a fascinating character. Mid-way through the film, when the opposition catches on and orchestrates a televised announcement that the war has ended, Motss explodes, shouting "Over?! This war isn't over until I say it's over!" To Hoffman's credit, you don't doubt him for a second. Skirting the line between preposterousness and uncomfortable plausibility, "Wag The Dog" is a nightmarish delight that invites comparisons to such great satires as "Network" and "Dr. Strangelove." Prepare to laugh yourself silly, and let's all pray that the film is less true than it seems to be.

Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott

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