"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
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