Wag the Dog
1998, R, 105 min. Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Kirsten Dunst, Willie Nelson, Anne Heche, Denis Leary.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 9, 1998
Sharp scripting, note-perfect performances, and nimble direction and technical execution combine to make Wag the Dog one of the wittiest and most mordant political satires to come along in quite some time. This quickly shot, relatively small-budget (considering the fact that it features two of the world's top movie actors) film is a cynic's delight, a trenchant and timely social comedy that frequently recalls the best of Dr. Strangelove. It takes as its premise the modern-day bastardization of politics, show business, and the media, which have all merged into one indistinguishable generator of news events and photo ops. Wag the Dog's unholy alliance begins when the United States president, 11 days before he's up for re-election, is accused of making improper advances to a young Firefly girl during her tour the White House. In no time flat, his opponent hits the airwaves with political ads that trumpet the song, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” A fretful presidential assistant, Winifred Ames (Heche), calls professional political fixer Conrad Brean (De Niro) to a summit deep in the bowels of the Washington power center, whereupon Mr. Fixit decides that what the situation requires is the distraction of a good-old-fashioned war effort. Not a real war necessarily, just the appearance of one. Off to California go the odd couple of the prim and uptight Ames and the detached and rumpled Brean to enlist the help of top Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman), a vain Tinseltown caricature who's thrilled to have his talents appreciated at last. Things escalate from there as Motss calls in his arsenal of image wranglers who include a songwriter played by Willie Nelson to pen a “spontaneous” We Are the World”-type anthem, the advertising Fad King (Leary), and a whole studio full of computer-generated video effects that are capable of fabricating a war in Albania from the reality of a girl holding a Tostitos bag in Burbank. Everyone involved in this production is in peak form. Hoffman and De Niro both turn in some of their best work in ages, once again playing off Motss' vanity and need for recognition against Brean's shadow-skulking self-effacement, all the while each of them appreciating the other as consummate professionals. Heche holds her own in the presence of such notable company, and Harrelson is utterly hilarious as an eleventh-hour loose cannon. A plotline that involves a suspicious government agent played by William H. Macy sputters without much focus but events move along at a rapid enough clip that the duff moments barely have time to register. The script was adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. As a cautionary tale, Wag the Dog may find itself somewhat in the position of preaching to the converted, but the pews will radiate with the sounds of laughter.