WAG THE DOG, 1997
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring: Dustin Hoffman; Robert De Niro; Anne Heche
Review by Tom Coatsworth
When the US President gets caught with his pants down, days before the election, his spin-doctors create a fictitious war to divert attention.
Nominated for 2 Oscars: Best actor in a leading role: Dustin Hoffman;
Best Screenplay: David Mamet; Hilary Henkin
Political satire in feature filmmaking is exceptionally rare. It’s a poor-boy genre that is shunned by producers, who prefer to make money. And so it’s a thrill to see top notch talent driving a witty political script all the way to the bank. On a fifteen million dollar budget ‘Wag The Dog’ grossed sixty-four million box-office worldwide — nothing to sneer at.
The story begins with scandal: the President has been accused by a Firefly Girl of sexual fondling. It’s only days before the election. He has a commanding lead in the polls but the story spells disaster. The President is in China. One of his chief advisors, Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), brings in ‘Mr. Fixit’ – Conrad Brean (De Niro) to handle the crisis. It seems an impossible task.
But lying helps: the President is sick and cannot leave China for at least a day – this buys time. Brean and Ames fly to California where they enlist Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Hoffman), to produce their war. (The Motss character was based on movie producer Robert Evans. Hoffman does a pitch-perfect job emulating Evans and was nominated for an Oscar. Evans, a former actor, insisted: “I was wonderful in that part”).
Brean wants a war – not a real war, but a pageant – he wants a song, a story line; he wants patriotic fervor to rise up and quell the Firefly Girl story. He pulls Albania out of the air. “What did they ever do for us? What do we know about them? They seem sort of shifty”. (Motss chimes in: they have ‘the bomb’ – a suitcase bomb – Albanian terrorists with a suitcase bomb in Canada.) Motss calls in his go-to team – John (Willie Nelson), a Nashville songwriter; the Fad King (Denis Leary) and Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin). They brainstorm the night away and by morning they have a song and a strategy.
They create film footage of the “War”. On a Hollywood Soundstage an actress (Kirsten Dunst) is hired to play a refugee fleeing a war torn village. She runs in front of a blue screen while a burning village complete with sirens and crying villagers is supplied digitally. Five hours later it is on the evening news. The Firefly story is buried. “It’s a pageant”, says Brean.
On route to Nashville Brean and Ames are detained by the CIA. There is no war and no bomb and someone has to answer for it. Brean spins the CIA agent (William H. Macy) like a top: if there were peace — you would be out of a job. Mr. CIA appears completely bamboozled and lets them go. However no sooner are they in Nashville they get word the war is over! The CIA has informed the Presidents rival and hence the public that hostilities with Albania have ended and all is right with the world! “This is nothing!” shouts Motss, “I’m producing this war, it’s not over till I say its over – we need an act 2”. Motss and the Fad King quickly spin Act2.
A soldier with a name like shoe has been caught behind enemy lines and is being held by the terrorists — a war hero. This plays perfectly with an ‘old shoe’ song they have dreamed up. The Army searches its ranks for a soldier by that name — William Schumann (Woody Harrelson). The campaign begins anew. The cry goes up: “bring back ‘Old Shoe’”. The new song is planted in the Library of Congress – 1930. Motss and Brean throw old shoes tied together over telephone lines and in tops of trees; catchy idea. The media loves it. (I remember when the movie appeared because so did the shoes – on telephone lines all over town.) School children start letter writing – the Firefly story is buried once again – they are almost home.
And then they meet Schumann – a dangerous psychotic who’s spent fifteen years in a military prison for raping a nun. (Part of the charm of the script is that as easily as the spin-doctors churn out lies and as easily as the public buys them the professional branches of the government – the Army, the CIA — are never really taken in and never quite go along with the charade.)
Harrelson is hilarious as the psycho soldier. I was particularly impressed with De Niro who displays some serious light, comedy chops. His attempts at broad comedy — at playing course, dumb, silly people — have never worked. Here he is at home. Hoffman is clicking as the slick Hollywood mogul; and Anne Heche fills some tall high heels, poised as she is between these two legends.
The script is deliciously funny and a subject of controversy – David Mamet, one of America’s finest, brashest playwrights, wrote the working script. It was nominated for an Oscar. But the original script, based on a book by Larry Beinhart, was written by Hilary Henkin. Barry Levinson has claimed that Mamet wrote his draft without reading the book or Henkin’s draft – but the case went to court and both Mamet and Henkin are now credited with screenwriting: they should get together more often, it’s brilliant.
‘Wag’ was released a month before the Clinton intern scandal, and so it was prescient. What’s more some believe the movie served to hamstring President Clinton’s actions: critics tied the timing of a missile attack on an enemy camp with a Presidential desire to ‘change the subject’. Whether it was true or not ‘Wag’ had spun ‘spin’ out of the box and there was no going back: the public had wised up. Since the days of Aristophanes that’s as good as it gets: ‘Wag The Dog’ is political satire at its finest. Enjoy.