out of 4
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Wag the Dog
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
"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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