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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

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 "Donnie Brasco".

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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