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Wag the Dog

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 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 Brian Koller
1½ stars out of 4

"Wag the Dog" is a biting satire of U.S. Presidential politics. It has been compared to "Dr. Strangelove", and indeed it is similar in feel: both films mine for humor by demonstrating how ludicrous seemingly ordinary events and conversations can become, when the participants have lost their perspective of what they are doing.

But "Wag the Dog" is no "Dr. Strangelove". It is too talky, too self-satisfied, too cynical, and often annoying in its excessive (and needless) use of obscenity. While there is a grain of truth in this tale of spin doctors replacing reality with phony and manipulating images, the notion is remarkably condescending that the media and the public would follow like sheep in whatever direction they are led.

The plot has the President getting into an unrecoverable scandal two weeks before re-election. He has had perhaps non-consensual sex with an underage girl, and this is the subject of many sly jokes (as if it could actually be funny). Robert De Niro plays a Presidential aide who wants the U.S. to start a war with Albania to take the focus from the President's shenanigans. He enlists Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman, idea man Denis Leary, and songwriter Willie Nelson to fabricate this war and its images. Things get even more preposterous as a soldier chosen randomly to be a war hero turns out to be a psychotic nun-raper (This is also supposed to be funny: Does Hollywood believe that rape is a subject for comedy?)

Sometimes the black comedy does find its target. Willie Nelson conducts a group of singers slogging their phony way through a manipulative song, and the satire catches it perfectly. Also effective are political ads with the lame slogan "Don't change horses in mid-stream" that appear endlessly on TV monitors. But while it is good to see the taboo against parodying U.S. patriotism broken, the joke of tossing old shoes in support of servicemen is a groaner.

On the whole, this film is a major disappointment. The depiction of a presidential administration that is essentially controlled by spin artists creating fantasy events for short term media payoffs, swallowed whole by the media and a public that completely ignores substance for spectacle, is smug and shallow and (worst of all) not often funny.

Copyright 1997 Brian Koller

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