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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 Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

In light of the recent events involving President Clinton and Paula Jones, not to mention the recent reports of the reemergence of Saddam Hussein, "Wag the Dog" is as perceptive and realistic a satire as I have ever seen; a dark, edgily written treatise on politics, Hollywood and the media, and how they are all interrelated.

"Wag the Dog" starts with a momentous sex-scandal involving the President of the United States - he apparently had a sexual encounter with an underage Girl Scout in the Oval Office. Naturally, the nation is on its toes with this scandal that threatens the upcoming election. Facing a desperate hour, the White House enlists a spin-control doctor, Conrad Bean (Robert De Niro), to divert the nation's attention by inventing a war with Albania! To do this, Conrad gets assistance from a disbelieving presidential aide (Anne Heche), and a veteran Hollywood producer named Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) - together, they have to create the appearance of a war by utilizing the power of the mass media. Motss orchestrates the production by creating a stage where a young girl (Kirsten Dunst) is supposedly running along the barracks of Albania carrying a kitten. "Get me a calico kitten," shouts Motss, admitting he's never had this much fun on a production before. Through a two-day process of computer animation, some "Anne Frank sirens," and a hand-held camera, a fake war is unveiled before the public's eyes. As Motss makes clear, "This is nothing. This is a walk in the park. Have you ever shot in Italy? "

And this is just the beginning. The catch is that for every deceptive performance they pull, the principals have to promise to never tell anyone, or they will be killed. The ambitious Motss wants some credit for his work, though: "The producer never gets any credit. How can you have a movie without a producer?" Even the young "Albanian" girl can't mention her performance on her resume - "It's just a pageant," declares Conrad.

"Wag the Dog" is based on the book "American Hero," a fictional chronicle of George Bush's attempts to create an unwanted war in the Persian Gulf. Is the movie outrageous and exaggerated, or is it speaking the truth? Considering the recent events surrounding Clinton's presidency, the movie is so truthful and acidly written, it is bitingly scary and sad to watch. The movie is basically saying that the media reports lies, not truths. Of course, we have seen dozens of movies that showed the corrupt amorality at the core of politics and the media - we see it every day, from the nightly news intent on reporting bloody crimes, to "The Jerry Springer Show" that advertises more and more fist fights, to the absurd overexposure of the Paula Jones case. What "Wag the Dog" does differently is to show how far politicians and the press are willing to go to sell their "product," basically yellow journalism, to the American public. The public will believe anything the media reports to them, so if there's a war going on with Albania, by golly, they'll buy it. Anything will work as long as it distracts attention from the President's sexual dalliances. In one of several attempts to prove their credibility, they concoct an old blues record called "Old Shoe," which becomes the nickname for a long-lost war hero (Woody Harrelson) who is actually a psychotic prisoner!

The wonderful cast is first-rate. Dustin Hoffman is excellent as the showy, nervous, fast-talking producer Motss who recalls the equally pretentious producer Robert Evans - it is a performance that ranks with Hoffman's best work in "Midnight Cowboy" and "Rain Man." Robert De Niro brings a smoothness and calmness that I've not seen him do since "Stanley and Iris"; note the calm precision by which he utters lines such as, "I'm working on it," or "We'll have to kill you" with a smile. Watching De Niro and Hoffman perform together is as pleasurable an experience as I've had in all of 1997. Anne Heche has a less remarkable role as the presidential aide, but she holds her own with these two heavyweights, especially during the conference scenes. Kudos must also go to Woody Harrelson's explosive cameo as the dumb, naive rapist with rotten teeth who pretends to be a war hero from Albania. It is equally delightful to see other memorable supporting roles including Willie Nelson as a singer trying to come up with a theme song for Albania; Denis Leary who is great fun as a slogan specialist; and there's William H. Macy (a Mamet regular) as an FBI agent who's curious about the credibility of this war.

"Wag the Dog" is as incisive and tragic a commentary on the amorality and lack of values in today's media frenzy as Network was. A brilliant script by David Mamet and Hillary Henkin, superb direction by Barry Levinson, typically "contrasty" cinematography by Robert Richardson, and expert performances by a game cast make for one of 1997's finest films. It's unforgettable, saddening, hilarious, and honest about the manipulation of the media, and how they report the news as if it was entertaining fodder for the dumb and dumber set. This is not a film to be ignored.

Copyright 1997 Jerry Saravia

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