Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Wag The Dog – Funny, and Yet Not Funny

Written by Larry Beinhart, Hilary Henkin, and David Mamet
Directed by Barry Levinson

When I come across a movie that manages to sarcastically poke at our reality, usually I find it quite funny. However, in a day and age where manipulation of the public by advertising agencies is so prevalent, I find it sad that people are so easily manipulated by slogans and jingoisms rather than facts. We are manipulated not only to buy the products they advertise, but also now to support various causes, platforms, or candidates. What’s even worse is that when we find we have been lied to and manipulated by statements that are not true, the reaction seems to be either to shrug it off and move on or to disbelief. After all, if I saw it on television, then it must be true. Where is the outrage and backlash against those who manipulate public sentiment to further their own agenda and line their pocketbooks?

The movie Wag the Dog was filmed before the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal broke and had the misfortune of being released just three weeks prior to it hitting the news. I say that because the movie has become synonymous with that scandal, which is unfortunate. It was originally written on the premise that Bush Sr. started the first Gulf War as a way of deflecting from his image problems. Re-written several times, it ended up looking quite different and seemed to be less focused on one particular political figure. The scandal which plagues the President in the film could be just about anything from taking bribes, illegal campaign contributions, the outing of a C.I.A. operative, or illegal firings of U.S. Attorneys. However, those would have been complex and needed more background, so a sex scandal was put in as a much simpler issue that needs to be worked through.

When the President is caught in a sex scandal just two weeks before Election Day, spinmeister Conrad Brean (portrayed by Robert DeNiro) arrives at the White House. His job is to figure out a way for the President to still be re-elected. He visits Hollywood producer Barry Motss (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman). The only thing Motss figures could possibly keep the press on other subjects for the eleven days until the election is a war. He comes up with the idea that Albanian terrorists are in Canada trying to get a bomb in a suitcase to the United States.

To build public sentiment, Johnny Dean (portrayed by Willie Nelson) is brought in to write a song. Dennis Leary as Fad King is also brought into the brainstorming session at the Motss’ mansion as well as Liz Butsky (portrayed by Andrea Marftin). It’s funny to watch all of them working on this, then talking about how they don’t vote.

The war of the future is nuclear terrorism…

Hmm. Sounds an awful lot like “weapons of mass destruction”, don’t you think?

Wag the Dog is a great political satire. It shows, with great exaggeration, how the media is used to divert the American public from an issue at hand to what they want us to think about. Don’t want us asking too many questions about Iraq? Bring on a “hero” like Jessica Lynch or Pat Tillman. Of course, Wag the Dog manages to do away with those who can tell the real story, while in this world we are fortunate to have those who are willing to set the record straight. The problem is our unwillingness to hear the truth instead of what the spin-doctors want us to believe is the truth.

The performances here are terrific. I almost didn’t recognize Anne Heche as Winifred Ames, White House liaison and assistant to Brean as he’s working on the project. It’s quite a different role for her and she really becomes the character quite well. Some of the funniest moments come as they are all in on faking this “war” and manipulating the public and her main concern seems to be that they might be hiring illegal aliens to work on the project.

Dustin Hoffmann is wonderful as the eccentric Hollywood producer. He really becomes the role, getting totally into the project. Nothing seems to phase him. He has a way around every roadblock that’s thrown up in their path and the casual way he plays with the ability to direct people’s sentiments feels quite genuine. None of it is real to him – he’s been caught up in the movie business for so long that he has no problem deceiving people.

Robert DeNiro seems to be overshadowed throughout the film as everything is going on around him. His marvelously understated performance is perfect for a man who doesn’t seem to be in control of anything but is actually in control of everything, as we see by the end. I like DeNiro much better in these roles when he is more subdued and the result is a great character.

Wag the Dog is not laugh-out-loud funny. It has moments of wry humor and outrageous behavior. Before many of the scandals of the last five years and the manipulation I’ve seen happen, I would have said it was pretty implausible. When I watched it now, I found it to be very grounded in the world we live in, and it only seems to be getting worse. It’s a terrific political satire that suffers mostly from hitting too close to the truth.


” The Cast
” Commentary with Director Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman
” Original Theatrical Trailer
” The Line Between Truth and Fiction
” From Washington to Hollywood and Back
” Macy on Mamet

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