Wag the Dog (1997)

Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, based upon the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart and adapted for the screen by David Mamet, has been getting a lot of press lately with this whole Clinton porn scandal or whatever that is. Ever since the story broke, the box office on Wag the Dog has gone up and up, and that never happens.

See, the film seems to resemble real life a little too closely. In fact, it is real life, in the sense that whether it's really true or not, it's true enough that we can't know just how true it might really be. Catch my drift? I know it's a bit of a brain-teaser, but nevertheless, as George Bush would say. "Nevertheless." That's all he would say. Creepy.

In Wag the Dog, the President is just a few days away from the election when a scandal breaks: a little Firefly girl accuses the President of taking liberties with her in the Oval Office. This, as we say, could be bad. Who gets the call? Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a shadowy political fixer who immediately comes up with the perfect plan. If the nation can be distracted by something really big, like a war, the President could coast into his second term and then deal with all of the messy sex stuff.

A war? That means we need an enemy, a theme song, a backstory. Enter Stanley R. Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a Hollywood producer who specializes in making problems go away. "This is nothing," is his motto. Brean hires Motss to produce the "pageant," and the thing kicks into high gear.

The idea of creating a war out of thin air may seem implausible for some, and that's why the movie was made. It's not just a fantasy, as I alluded to above. It's the way things work, with a dark, cynical twist: this time it's not "true." Of course the question raised is what is really true about any media phenomenon, which is what major news stories have become in our day and age. (I don't like to think of myself as a wacko conspiracy theorist. In fact, I resent the way that the press has turned the very word "conspiracy," which simply means a scheme involving more than one person, into a code word for "crazy." Anybody who believes a scheme involving more than one person could exist and affect the world is crazy? When did this get to be the conventional wisdom?)

The point is, all the American people need to go along with anything, a really spectacular murder, a war, a reelection, are full stomachs, a few compelling images, and a plausible storyline. If we've got all that, we don't ask questions. There are still a few people out there who get disturbed when things fall into place a little too well, but just let them stick their heads up, like Hillary Rodham Clinton did on the "Today" show a few days ago, and look out. Everybody yells "Nut!" and that's the end of the inquiry.

We don't want to hear that there is a group of people, maybe not the same people, maybe not well organized, maybe not permanent, but a group of people which invents our national life for us, and we really have no say except at the ballot box, and who votes anymore anyway? "Those booths are so claustrophobic. I can't vote in confined spaces."

Mamet and Levinson provide a quick, witty, thought-provoking script which is memorably acted with impeccable timing by Hoffman, De Niro, Anne Heche as the President's chief of staff, Willie Nelson as a country impresario, William H. Macy (of Fargo) as a CIA operative, Woody Harrelson as a war hero, and Denis Leary as the on-top-of-it Fad King. Just watching them talk to each other is the chief pleasure of the film. Listen closely, you might miss something. My favorite line is Willie Nelson's: "Jim Belushi is Albanian." You can pick your own.

A special mention should be made of the music. The film is practically a musical, with the songs a character of their own in a way that is rare on film today, but completely in context in the story. It's a joy.


Links for Wag the Dog

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

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