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Film Review: Wag the Dog

Title: Wag the Dog

Director(s): Barry Levinson

Screenwriter(s): Hilary Henkin & David Mamet

Studio: Tribeca, Baltimore Pictures, Punch Released: 1997

Runtime: 1h 37m

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson

Loosely based on the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart, this is considered a modern classic by many and rightfully so. This is no doubt partly because the narrative so resembles reality, even by high standards of satire.

Wag the Dog

Spin doctor Conrad Brean (De Niro) is urgently called into some dark and obscure basement of the White House by Winifred Ames (Heche). The problem: the president is accused of behaving inappropriately with an underage girl in the Oval Office. And the election is merely in two weeks.

Brean’s solution to save the president: fake a war with Albania. Why Albania? Because no one knows anything about Albania. Brean recruits some talent in order to create and propagate this fictional war, including film producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman). And what follows is a very tight narrative of Brean, Motss and Ames bringing their fiction to life.

As expected in a comedy, obstacles pop up at their every move, which in turn provides an opportunity for further action and so on, each cycle getting increasingly ridiculous. In this way, there is always some tension and intrigue, the tug of war going all the way to the end.

Although the screenplay was originally written by Henkin, one can see Mamet’s influence. The most apparent is his trademark energetic dialogue, particularly the rapid-fire delivery that De Niro is known for. In almost every scene, there is an identifiable conflict, typically De Niro’s character trying to talk his way in to or out of something no matter how seemingly ridiculous. As such, every scene is focused and the overall structure tight.

The other is the structure inspired by Greek mythology that is commonly adopted in Hollywood, but the writers make it work. As already mentioned, the film opens in some dark, obscure basement. The outside world is not shown and the audience only hears about it through dialogue. Immediately, there is a sense of mystery, this other world the audience does not see. As the story progresses, the main characters interact with the so-called real world but there is still much related to their mission that is not shown. This is obviously consistent to the theme of fake news where one relies on reports and hearsay.

A more specific example of the “other world” is the president and the Oval Office. His face is never shown. It is over halfway through the film before Motss insists on seeing the president in the Oval Office. Even then, the president’s face is not shown and the scene in the office is not very long.

Later, our “heroes” have their underground moment. It’s not quite like Luke Skywalker and co falling into the garbage compactor but there is definitely a “falling” of sorts, literally and figuratively. Of course, despite this near-death experience, they find something to finish the job.

The abovementioned imagery or approach all serve to enhance the drama and intrigue. The satire itself is funny as it is disturbing. At one stage, Brean practically rewrites history (or more like inserts fake history) to propagate his fiction and he has no qualms making use of death for his purposes.

The one weakness is that some of the minor characters who are part of Brean’s team play too little of a role. This is admittedly difficult in a film with limited screen time, but not having them would seem a lack of “busyness”. So, perhaps what is shown is the most balanced approach.

Wag the Dog may not be a laugh-out-loud comedy, and it could be darker, but it is nonetheless a clever and consistently enjoyable film with very good production and relevant to these times.


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