'Wag the Dog' grabs satire by the tail
January 6, 1998
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EST (1800 GMT)
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- You have to give Barry Levinson some credit. Though
I've grown less-than-thrilled with the kind of broad-appeal
films he's been churning out after the success of his classic
-- and highly intimate -- directorial debut, "Diner,"
Levinson recently has started doing what Hollywood, with its
limited vocabulary, likes to refer to as "edgy" work.
In recent years, he's created and produced the great,
groundbreaking NBC cop show, "Homicide," and now he's
directed a small-budget political black comedy called "Wag
the Dog." Though "Wag the Dog" winds up being far less than
the sum of its considerable parts (the stellar cast includes
Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, William H. Macy and Woody
Harrelson), it isn't a career move for anybody involved, and
it displays a ton of chutzpah. That's a whole lot more than
you usually get from a popular studio director with 10 movies
and an Oscar under his belt.
Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, "Wag the Dog" is a
broad satire that sometimes gets broad enough to remind you
of something like "Dr. Strangelove," which is pretty broad
indeed. Like Kubrick did with "Strangelove," Levinson is
sharply skewering the dangerous truth-twisting of
Unlike "Strangelove," however, the situation in which these
power plays take place isn't of the life-or-death variety.
Lots of ridiculous, opinionated jawing goes on, but the lack
of real urgency makes it seem terribly redundant after a
while. Given Mamet's track record, you would expect lots of
the dialogue to be biting, and it often is. After a few
bites, though, the hot dog has been eaten and you're left
gnawing on a bun.
President's spin man
De Niro plays Conrad, a secretive government operative with a
vaguely defined job description.
Basically, he's the guy who gets the president out of tight
situations. The one he's dealing with in the movie concerns
a Firefly Girl (more or less a Girl Scout) who claims that
the prez groped her in the Oval Office. Re-election is just
11 days away, and Conrad has been called in to set up some
kind of smoke screen to give the press something meatier to
chew on and knock the Firefly Girl off the front page.
Anne Heche, an actress who, until now, has been best known
for flinging her arms around girlfriend Ellen DeGeneres' neck
every time there's a camera within 100 yards, plays a White
House aide who is to brainstorm with De Niro and make sure
his plans are carried out. Heche is very good, displaying a
bemused intelligence that has just the right mixture of
jingoism and disbelief.
What's finally decided is that the citizens of the United
States need a war to take their minds off of the president's
naughty, drifting hands, so De Niro and Heche decide to leak
the completely false story that the country is about to go to
war with Albania.
Why Albania? Because, as Conrad (quite insincerely) says,
"They seem shifty. They seem standoffish." Mock news
footage then has to be shot of an Albanian girl running
through the rubble of her war-torn village, clutching a
kitten to her chest. This is movie stuff, so now they'll
need a movie producer. Enter Dustin Hoffman.
Producing an 'Albanian war'
Hoffman gives his best performance in years, as a preening,
self-absorbed Hollywood fat cat who spends half his time
lying on his tanning bed and the other half praising himself
for his "genius" at bringing talented people together.
This near-talentless man with the money to supposedly
"direct" other people's abilities is a movie industry staple,
and Hoffman has a field day with the character. He sees De
Niro's project as his ultimate challenge, his chance to do
some Oscar-caliber work even though he's never won one.
Unfortunately, he won't be able to tell anyone about it.
This turns out to be the egomaniac's undoing.
The production of the "war" footage is the best stuff in the
movie. The level of insanity just keeps rising as Hoffman
wills an Albanian massacre into being, complete with an
outraged-but-uplifting "We Are the World"-style theme song.
On a studio set, Kirsten Dunst, as the Albanian girl, is made
to run in front of a blue screen over and over again, while
various bombed-building panoramas are inserted behind her on
the monitors. Smoke and fire is added, then sound effects.
This includes one of my favorite pieces of dialogue this
year: "It needs ooh-aah sirens. You know, 'ooh-aah-ooh-
ahh.' Anne Frank." Since they've yet to decide what sort of
kitty will be digitally inserted into Dunst's arms, the
Albanian refugee is often shown running around grasping a
large bag of Tostitos to her chest.
Second half of movie less fun
Then the fun slows down considerably. The second half of the
movie gets into something of a grind as more and more rumors
are released, the dialogue becomes unbearably single-minded,
and a war hero is invented to keep the American public
Woody Harrelson, however, has a funny cameo as a prison
psycho whose picture was accidentally selected as the face of
the hero. When it's time to have the guy speak to the
American public, a glowering lunatic shows up at the airport
saying unsolicited stuff like, "As long as you get me back
for the beans, 'cause tomorrow's beans."
I can only say this within the context of the film, but,
luckily, he gets killed. That means that Hoffman's next
production is an elaborate funeral for a fake war hero who
fought in a fake war.
That string of fakes is exactly why the movie eventually
falls apart. It's the same joke chasing its tail for the
last 45 minutes of the film, but, in fits and starts, there's
a lot to be said for "Wag the Dog." Everyone involved,
especially Barry Levinson, should be applauded for stepping
out a little bit. Keep up the risky work, guys. It's
starting to get pretty boring out there.
"Wag the Dog" contains the usual barrage of Mamet
profanities, and the cold manipulation is sometimes
unnerving. Politically astute teen-agers should enjoy it --
that is, if there are any. Rated R. 97 minutes.