Wag the Dog

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Political Satire That Lost Its Umph Before Its Time

Apr 21, 2000 (Updated Apr 21, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Excellent acting throughout

Cons:The awesome parts add up to a good, but not great, whole

Art Imitating Life?

Wag the Dog is a Political Satire adapted from the American Hero, a novel which theorizes that George Bush started the Gulf War to counteract the “wimp image” he was suffering from. The final screenplay, written by respected Playwright and Screenplay Writer David Mamet, hardly follows the original work at all; the president is clearly not Bush (the scandal was different, and the war was fictitious), nor was it supposed to be Clinton or any other president; in fact, the face of the president was never clearly shown.

Unfortunately, just weeks after the film premiered, the Monica Lewinski affair broke, and critics accused the filmmakers of reshooting scenes to capitalize on Clinton’s Scandal. What they neglected to mention is that the film was in the theater before any of this happened. In fact, this was not a case of art imitating life; if anything, it was a case of life imitating art.

Unfortunately the publicity received did not increase the movie’s popularity. In fact people could watch details of a much more scandalous affair at home for free on the nightly news in their newspapers, and over the internet. Jane Rosenthal, the producer, pointed out, in one of the supplementary pieces on the DVD, that many of the actions in the Clinton/Lewinski Affair could never had been written into the Wag the Dog script. Characters like Linda Tripp would have appeared to have been too unbelievable to include; otherwise undermining any potential believability of the satire. In short, the Clinton/Lewinski Scandal was far more interesting and captivating than Wag…, and within weeks of release made this film lose much of its satirical qualities.

Ironies

As ominous as the assassination, the prophetic conclusion of Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate, was, three seemingly prescient ironies were contained in this film.

1. The scandal that the Wag… President is accused of is inappropriate sexual misconduct with a “Firefly Girl” while her troupe was touring the White House. The President is shown hugging the girl, looking down on her, while she wears a beret, part of the “Firefly Girl” uniform. When this still picture is shown on “the news” the picture is posed exactly like the infamous Clinton/Lewinski picture.

2. The sexual misconduct occurs in the private office behind the oval office, the same room where much of the Lewinski matter took place.

3. The president was accused of considering starting a war to divert attention from the inquiry into his affair.


But the film wasn’t believable anyway

Actually, there are several instances in history of wars being allegedly started by the media, or battles being faked by the media. Here is an example of each.

The Spanish American War was fueled by and eventually started by infamous newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The kings of “Yellow Journalism”, Hearst and Pulitzer, in competition, each ran stories about the Cuban rebellion greatly exaggerating atrocities, and creating tales of Spanish run concentration camps for Cubans and other Span on Cuba atrocities. The final straw was Hearst prematurely running headlines and stories in his papers about the Spanish intentionally sinking an American ship, the Maine, of the coast of Havana, and the ensuing rallying cry, “Remember the Maine!” To this day the exact cause of the explosion is at best speculative and inconclusive. This all fueled the public sentiment and forced the politicians to declare war on Spain, regardless of the voracity of these atrocities.

Hollywood director DW Griffith was hired as the Military’s sole documenter and filmmaker for World War I. Griffith actually staged battles to “catch live footage” which was sent back to the States for use in newsreels.

Now if you see the film, the premise won’t seem so implausible.


Now onto the Film - Starring

The cast & crew is loaded with talent; here is just some of it:

Robert DeNiro as Conrad Brean, an accomplished “spinmaster”
Dustin Hoffman as Stanley Motss, an accomplished Hollywood Producer
Anne Heche, as Winifred Aimes, the President’s advisor and attaché, assigned to work with Brean.
Woody Harrelson, as Sgt William Schumann, a fictitious POW and military hero
Craig T. Nelson, as Senator John Neal, the president’s political opponent in the upcoming election
Dennis Leary, as “The Fad King”, hired by Motss to keep the public eye
Willie Nelson, as Johnny Dean, a songwriter hired by Motss
Andrea Martin, as Liz Butsky, Brean’s Assistant
William Macy, as a CIA agent

Cameos by Jay Leno, Jim Belushi, and others
Directed by Award Winning Director Barry Levinson
Screenplay by David Mamet

No one gave a bad performance in this movie: it was probably Heche’s best effort to date; it is Hoffmans best performance since Rainman; DeNiro, Nelson, Macy and Harrelson were extremely effective in their roles; but, unfortunately the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole. The movie is good, maybe very good, but given the individual performances which are excellent and which mesh well, you would expect the movie to be of award caliber, and it wasn’t.

Synopsis

The President gets accused of sexual misconduct with a Firefly Girl only 11 days before election, and his opponent, Senator Neal is already all over it with a commercial ready to air mocking the president. Knowing that the “fit was about to hit the shan”, the President orders Aimes to get Brean on the case. Immediately, Brean creates rumors of fictitious unrest, fictitious bombers, and a fictitious Presidential illness. This gives Brean two days of diversion to hatch his plan.

Brean and Aimes fly to Hollywood to meet with Motss, a party supporter and famous Hollywood producer. Brean's plan is hatched, and Motss is brought aboard to produce an “Albanian War”.

The main theme in the film is the power of the media, Hollywood, and politics to influence each other and the public. It also addresses the fact that if it’s on TV, it’s real, or at least that’s public perception.

“Luckily” we are beginning to me more skeptical and more cynical, and we no longer believe it just because it’s in print or on TV. Technology has had a huge effect on our innocence; live satellite feeds, the internet, the lowering of production costs, and the “race to be first” have lowered our media’s standards so that all info is taken with a grain of salt.

Is this progress? Speed-wise, yes, but as far as quality is concerned, checking facts is often just a procedure of the past. This is largely why the scenarios presented in the film are eerily possible.


Best Lines:

Sgt Schumann (Harrelson): “Anybody feel like a beer?” (OK, you have to see this in character for it to be funny, and I can’t give more details without giving stuff away)

Macy, who plays the CIA agent to Brean and Aimes: “When the fit hits the shan, somebody’s gonna have to stay after school”

Motss (Hoffman), every time something goes wrong, no matter how tragic: “This is nothing. Piece of Cake!”


Conclusion, and Was the Film a Success?

Yes! The film was not created to have mass appeal. A 29 day shooting schedule and $15 million production budget ensured that the film would be a financial success if it pulled from it’s target audience, and generally, it did.

The film has many great performances, some surprises, and a few great ironies (if you remember that the film came before the Lewinski affair was public knowledge) in this film. It is a thinking man or thinking woman’s film that is mostly dialogue. However, the pace keeps it from seeming drawn out or lifeless.

If you enjoy satire, and films that require you to think you should probably give Wag the Dog at least one viewing.


”If the tail were smarter, the tail would Wag the Dog”




Recommend this product? Yes

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