The U.S. Constitution is a flawed document. Made up by
fellows of landed wealth, it nevertheless forbids the country
from enjoying a monarchy. Now, the British king or queen
serves quite a useful function in that society. The monarch
provides the people with the drama we all seek while allowing
those with true power to carry on the routines of governing.
In the U.S., by contrast, the people depend on their politicians
for their theatrical thrills, an addiction which leads to months
of long, silly campaigning for high offices like the presidency.
The scandal-hungry public, unable to grant titular
leaders the permission to humiliate themselves, instead
depend on presidential mortification.
In "Wag the Dog," Barry Levinson does an unusually quiet,
though articulate, take on what a president must do during the
closing days of his campaign to get re-elected when a
scandal threatens to oust him from office. Hilary Henkin and
David Mamet, who wrote the script, do not tell us anything we
don't know about the corrupt bargains needed by higher-ups
(in business as well as politics). But allowing clever dialogue
to come across to the audience as routine, matter-of-fact
conversation, they have allowed their actors to expose
political shams as nothing more than acts and deeds that go
with the territory. Though "Wag the Dog" lacks the crisp,
repetitive talk that we usually expect from writers like Mamet,
the movie compensates by uncovering the corruption that
power engenders as though it were merely a feature of
performance artistry. In other words, the value of
the film is that it presents sensational events as though they
were expected, everyday occurrences.
The drama is inspired by an incident which befalls the
incumbent president during the conclusion of his re-election
campaign. A teenage girl accuses the chief executive of
sexual harassment which allegedly took place just beyond the
prying eyes of the Oval Office, leading comedian Jay Leno to
quip, "When the president presses the flesh, he's not
campaigning: he's dating." The senator who is running for the
high office exploits the situation by using the song "Thank
heaven for little girls" to put across his point that "we have to
change the tune." The incident threatens the tenure of the
chief executive. What to do? The campaign hires a spin
doctor, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), also known as "Mr.
Fixit," to devise a way to whitewash the event. What better
way to distract the electorate than by going to war? No need
to have any actual fighting: just produce a skirmish in much
the way that Hollywood would create a movie and convince
the public that a heroic conflict is actually occurring. Brean
hires a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman)
who--with the help of a song writer (Willie Nelson), a would-be
hero (Woody Harrelson) and an attractive presidential
assistant (Anne Heche)--invent a conflict involving a U.S.
anti-terrorist fighting mission in Albania.
As a delightful contrivance, "Wag the Dog" recalls the
waggery of Leonard Wibberley's novel, "The Mouse That
Roared," which deals with a small country that declares war
against the U.S. fully expecting to lose and then be granted
huge doses of foreign aid by the victor. In this case, the
world's greatest power allegedly sends B-3 bombers (which
the U.S. government denies even exists therefore leading the
public to conclude that it surely does) to little Albania. To
excite the American people to the horrors committed in that
poor European nation, Motss hires a young woman (Kirsten
Dunst) to act out a skit in which she is running across her
Albanian village screaming that she has just been raped by
terrorists. To keep the C.I.A. from revealing the hoax, Motss
and Brean explain to one of its members (William H. Macy)
that his very job depends on playing along with the game.
Visually, "Wag the Dog" unfolds one event which provides
its audience with a display of technical virtuosity that will
amaze even the most jaded, teenage computer hacker.
Asking the "terrorist victim" simply to run across the stage
with a large bag of potato chips in her hands, Motss and
Brean show how digitized photography can create astounding
imagery. As the technician (Bernard Hocke) manipulates a
large machine, the bag of potato chips turns into a white
kitten which has been superimposed on the TV screen, and
the stage becomes a quaint European village in flames.
The real virtue of the movie is the chemistry between De
Niro as spin doctor and Hoffman as Hollywood producer.
While De Niro's character remains in the background,
Hoffman's is exuberant. Baring vanity as mankind's favorite
sin--as Al Pacino informed us in his diabolical role in "Devil's
Advocate"--Hoffman stands out as a guy who does not want
for financial success but feels left out because "no one knows
what a producer does." Having produced several Academy
Awards shows, he groans that he has never himself won an
Oscar, and is determined to put on a show during the
presidential campaign which is the creative high point of his
life. Anne Heche, by contrast, is ill-defined by the script and
so heavily made up that she looks like a figure from the
collection of Madame Tussaud.
Deliberately scaled down to ponder the everyday nature of
corruption, "Wag the Dog" comes across as a modest, $15
million film shot in just under a month, an intriguing entry from
Barry Levinson which embraces his smaller movies like
"Diner" rather than more flamboyant ones like "Bugsy" and
Copyright © 1997 Harvey Karten