Movie review: ‘Wag the Dog’

wtgIn the nearly 20 years since the release of “Wag the Dog,” technology and gullibility of the public continue to make strides in opposite directions while the premise of the film remains alive today. In “Wag the Dog,” a war is created (not fought) through what today would be called viral means in social media – totally created to obfuscate something else. In 1997 it was emerging technology … today it is part of our everyday lives. The tail has truly come to wag the dog and it is not pretty. Oh, and by the way … the film is a winner – especially Dustin Hoffman, who won an Oscar for his work in it.

‘Wag the Dog’
(1997; 97 minutes; rated R; directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Denis Leary)

NEED A POLITICAL SMOKESCREEN? HOW ABOUT A WAR?

The best thing about “Wag the Dog” is Dustin Hoffman. He’s head and shoulders above everyone else here and that saying something when the co-star is Robert De Niro. They’ve each won two Oscars and each has five other nominations. Still, Oscar nominators got this one right – Dustin was nominated for “Wag the Dog” while Robert wasn’t.

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The rest of the cast is solid as necessary to maintain “Wag the Dog’s” quality, but it isn’t terribly deep. However, it doesn’t need to be.

Wag the Dog” is a story that blends the showmanship of politics with the showmanship of movies. In “Wag the Dog,” the sitting U.S. president is facing re-election in a couple of weeks but he’s been accused of molesting a young girl. So, his political team calls in an expert (Robert De Niro as “Conrad Brean”) who is the best at covering things up for prominent people. He needs something and he needs it fast – what he needs is someone like a Hollywood producer. So he hires Hoffman, who plays “Stanley Motss.”

The premise for De Niro is simple: create a smokescreen that will keep the salacious story off the front page and out of voters’ minds. How do you do that? Well, create a war. Of course. How do you do that? Bring in a Hollywood producer to produce one for you. Naturally. Now, about the war – ah, it doesn’t matter; it’s Hollywood.

Enter Hoffman. He’s totally Holly-weird … he thinks of nothing except entertainment and only sees whatever’s going as to how it can relate to a production. Hoffman isn’t into it at first but starts to like it when De Niro can have the president’s press secretary say something live in the middle of a press conference. So, with the idea of war against Albania (of all places), it’s off to the races. De Niro and a presidential assistant (“Winifred Ames” played by Anne Heche) then follow in his wake with De Niro making the strategic decisions while leaving Hoffman to produce the entertainment.

The war needs some video (of course) and he arranges for a shoot of a girl running away from the war (Kirsten Dunst as “Tracy Lime”) that goes viral – in today’s terms – then it’s off to a theme song (thanks, Willie Nelson as “Johnny Dean”), a hero who isn’t one and finally the hero’s death and one other to close out the story. In the end it’s a pyrrhic victory for Hoffman, who just cannot stop being Hollywood.

Here’s a rundown of the work of some of the principal cast:

  • Hoffman does his usual job of immersing himself in the role until you cannot imagine him not being the character. Although he sees himself as always undervalued, he is always moving forward and no setback is too big (even when their “hero” turns out to have just come from a military prison for raping a nun) that he can’t solve it. He has great mannerisms and his incessant patter is remarkable. Hoffman’s Oscars are for “Rain Man” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.” The former is overrated except for Tom Cruise’s work and the latter just execrable.
  • De Niro glides through this role and his superior talent makes it look too easy when compared to rough-and-tumble efforts such as “Casino” or “Goodfellas” under Martin Scorsese’s direction. He doesn’t quite give off the menacing vibes that he truly carries and while sometimes appearing to be phlegmatic or get-along, go-along … he’s iron inside and snaps off instant decisions without a blink. De Niro’s Oscars are for “Raging Bull” and “The Godfather: Part II.”
  • A very underrated performance is turned in from a surprising quarter: Heche. Her career is something less than sparkling, but this one is a bright spot. Heche is all cold efficiency except for those few moments when she shows that’s she’s as emotionally twitchy as a poodle. I’m glad that she chose to play this one somewhat low-key and it really works – she’s very good here. Heche was OK but not as good in “Donnie Brasco” (click here for my review) as she was here and she was also in the remake of “Psycho.”
  • Denis Leary plays the “Fad King,” who is … well, Denis Leary. He’s got a sarcastic voice and has the magical touch of knowing the right fad and way to tap it. He doesn’t stretch his talents much here, but the role isn’t really one to showcase his talents. Leary was better in a smaller role in “Demolition Man” with Sylvester Stallone (click here for my review) and was also in “Two if by Sea” with Sandra Bullock. He was much, much better in the HBO film “Recount” about the 2000 presidential election (click here for my review).
  • Willie Nelson is the musical expert brought in by Hoffman to have the right soundtrack to the war and ultimately its signature song. Nelson, too, is smooth with his character and while this isn’t a great role for him, it’s not bad. He’s also been in “The Dukes of Hazzard” movie (click here for my review) and with Robert Redford in “The Electric Horseman” (click here for my review).
  • Although you’d believe that William H. Macy would give Hoffman and De Niro and run for their acting money, he looks kind of lost in the small role he plays here as “CIA Agent Charles Young.” Macy usually can take even a minor character and give an acting clinic with it, but he doesn’t do anything here. Macy struts his stuff better in “Panic” (click here for my review), a very, very dark “The Cooler” and “Jurassic Park III” (click here for my review).
  • Dunst was only 15 when “Wag the Dog” had its premiere in late 1997 and it was one of her seven acting credits for the year. It’s not much of a role, but Dunst gets about as much out of it as possible – and that’s impressive for a teenaged actor, but not surprising since she had already had much meatier roles (such as “Jumanji” with Robin Williams – click here for my review). She’s also been in “Small Soldiers” and the “Spider-Man” franchise.
  • Two very funny B-list comedian/actors have small parts here: David Koechner as “the Director” and Harland Williams as “Pet Wrangler.” You’ll enjoy each in other films more than here. Koecher was in the wonderful “Thank You for Smoking” (click here for my review) and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” while Williams was in “Down Periscope” with Kelsey Grammer (click here for my review) and had a small uncredited part as a hitchhiker in the Farrelly brothers’ “There’s Something About Mary.”
  • I’m not a fan of Woody Harrelson except for “Zombieland” (click here for my review) and this film did nothing to change my mind. He doesn’t really act and just kind of stumbles through the role. It’s nearly as bad as his work in “After the Sunset” with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek (click here for my review).

In the end, the lack of reality wins on all levels with one exception … but that’s a spoiler alert I won’t go into here. Watch and find out for yourself.

I always thought Hoffman’s character was based on legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans (“Marathon Man,” “Black Sunday” – click here for my review) because of his tinted glasses. However, some quick research on the internet indicates that Evans was the inspiration more from his mannerisms, but also from his glasses.

Wag the Dog” was the 52nd ranked film in ticket sales for 1997 with $43 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Worldwide it made $64.2 million on its $15 million budget, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Titanic” with $600.7 million and No. 2 trailed by $350 million (it was “Men in Black” with $250.6 million). Two truly magnificent films of 1997 much better than both of those were “L.A. Confidential” (24th with $64.6 million – click here for my review) and Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (58th with $39.6 million – click here for my review). Another one that I enjoyed and is outstanding is John Cusack and Dan Aykroyd in “Grosse Pointe Blank” (74th with $28 million – click here for my review).

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Craig T. Nelson plays “Sen. John Neal” and is the president’s election opponent. He’s mainly seen in video news clips disparaging the president and saying there is no war. Nelson is most remembered as TV’s “Coach” and has also been in “Poltergeist.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “ ‘Why change horses midstream?’ was originally a campaign slogan for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Conrad’s line, ‘A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow,’ is a quote from WWII General George S. Patton.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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