They say truth is often stranger than fiction, but if Wag the Dog (New Line Cinema) is on the mark – and it seems to come pretty close – the truth might actually be fiction.
Director Barry Levinson’s political satire offers an amusing, and at times disturbing, look at American politics. But despite a talented cast that includes Academy Award-winning actors Dustin Hoffman (Mad City) and Robert De Niro (Jackie Brown), the film rushes through its comical script.
The movie begins with an eerily familiar premise: The president of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct.
Enter Conrad Brean (De Niro), a Washington spin doctor hired to ensure the president is re-elected.
And where better to pull off a dazzling victory than Hollywood? There Brean teams with film producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to create the appearance of the one thing that will divert public attention from presidential transgression: a war.
In Wag the Dog, creating a war is easier done than said. Brean, Motss and the hodgepodge crisis team they assemble manage to do it with no trouble at all. They compose a song, distribute film footage, even create a war hero – and all in 11 days’ time.
Loosely based on the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart, Wag the Dog paints a startling picture of American politics. Though it seems impossible the American public would fall for some of Brean and Motss’ concoctions, they aren’t as corny as they appear.
The team’s appointed songwriter, Johnny Green (Willie Nelson), pens a song for the occasion strongly reminiscent of the Persian Gulf War’s “Voices That Care” or the 1980s anthem “We Are the World.”
And the group’s plan to encourage Americans to throw their shoes into trees in support of a missing soldier nicknamed “The Old Shoe” mirrors the trend of tying on yellow ribbons in support of war efforts.
As a satire, Wag the Dog is a rousing success. It points out with astounding accuracy the tendency of the American electorate to believe everything it sees on television. And it presents an even more frightening question: Who really controls what’s in the news, journalists or media handlers?
But the film moves too fast at times, skimming over some of the funnier parts of the script. One-liners abound, but the speedy delivery means some of the dialogue gets lost in the hubbub.
Hoffman’s hilarious performance as Motss is the best in the film. De Niro’s Brean is understated in comparison, though both actors play well off each other. And Anne Heche is believable as the president’s nervous top adviser, though her performance is nothing spectacular.
If nothing else, Wag the Dog will leave one wondering if anything in tomorrow’s Post is true.
Wag the Dog is now playing.3 hatchets
This article appeared in the January 15, 1998 issue of the Hatchet.