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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

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

"We need a theme, a song, some visuals," presidential spin doctor Conrad Brean explains, pitching his big project to Hollywood movie producer Stanley Motss. "It's a pageant. It's like the Oscars. That's why we need you."

It's eleven days before the election and with the breaking revelation that the president had molested a Firefly girl in the White House, Conrad needs something to keep that story from making the front pages. Fast thinking Conrad knows just what they need, a small, cost-effective war, which he euphemistically refers to as a pageant. When asked with whom, he keeps responding, "I'm working on it." Finally, he comes up with the relatively obscure Albania as the perfect villain. Not wanting to actually fight there, he has Stanley produce a war image on a stage set. The American public will never be the wiser, and the president will be elected with patriotic fervor rather booted out as morally bankrupt.

Normally dramatic film director Barry Levinson, whose body of work includes DINER, RAIN MAN, and SLEEPERS, delivers another hit in WAG THE DOG, but this time it is a black comedy. The exceedingly bright and biting script by Hilary Henkin and the great David Mamet will remind you of one current event after another. Even in the most ridiculous parts of the story, one's reaction is likely to be a double-take: an "of course not," followed by a "well, maybe ..."

In a film with a modest $15 million dollar budget, the stars still shine brightly. Dustin Hoffman, having the time of his life and deserving an Oscar nomination, plays producer Stanley Motss. Stanley views his little war as his best piece of work ever. He hires a famous song writer, played by Willie Nelson, to produce a mass chorus song that sounds similar to "We Are The World" but is called "We Have The Right To Fight For Democracy."

As Conrad Brean, Robert De Niro has a wry smile for every hardship in the campaign. He's seen it all and can confuse the media faster than he can say that we are not sending B-3 bombers to Albania. Leak the story about the non-existent plane and then deny it, deny it, deny it. Now, that will certainly flummox the press and get the sexual misconduct story buried on page 12.

In my favorite performance in the movie, Anne Heche plays top presidential aide Winifred Ames. Normally in command, Winifred does not know what to make of Conrad, who takes control of everything. One minute she tries to be tough, but the next she is looking wide-eyed at Conrad's latest outlandish idea. She always goes along, of course, that is until William H. Macy appears in a small part as a CIA agent. When trapped, she's willing to blame everyone and plead for mercy.

The best sequence in the movie concerns the construction of the war video to show on CNN and the other news networks. First they hire the right young actress, played by a distraught looking Kirsten Dunst, to run away from her bomb ravaged village in Albania. Filled on a stage against a blue background, they carefully choose the right hamlet for the backdrop, pick the right flames and sounds and, in the piece de resistance, figure out the right pet for her to be clutching. The animal was to have been filmed live, but something came up so Stanley gives her a large bag of Tostitos to hold instead. They'll scan in a cat in post-production. The president, who is never seen, calls on the cell phone to insist that they use a white cat. This infuriates Stanley, who hates it when his backers get in the way of his creative decisions.

Many other good actors show up as well in the film with Woody Harrelson having an eye-opening small part, which cannot be described without giving too much away.

The main problem with the movie is that it is so hilarious that you may have to see it twice to hear all the funny lines. The audience at our screening could barely control themselves.

The opening credits answer the question you have about why the movie is called WAG THE DOG: "Why does a dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog." And this marvelously funny film wags the audience until they leave the theater limp from one belly laugh after another.

WAG THE DOG runs a fast 1:35. It is rated R for mature themes and some profanity and would be fine for teenagers.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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