Wag the Dog

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

REVIEWED: 01-20-98

It used to be that movies never showed the President of the United States. Oh, you might have seen his hands or the back of his head, but you never saw his face--it was a sign of respect for the office. Obviously, things have changed. As early as 1980, the villains of Superman II bossed the president around shamelessly, with Terence Stamp ordering the chief executive to "Kneel before Zod!" Lately, the prez has become a full-fledged action hero, with Independence Day's president, played by Bill Pullman, suiting up to fight the baddies, and Harrison Ford becoming the chief exec who kicked terrorist ass in last summer's Air Force One. Yet Wag the Dog, the newest film from director Barry Levinson, goes back to basics with an unseen president. Perhaps it's because in this flick, the president is accused of a serious indiscretion: fondling a Firefly Girl only days before the election.

Getting the public's attention away from the scandal is the job for spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) and presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche). They enlist the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to help them create the only story bigger than a pedophile president: a war with the evil empire of Albania. If, as Brean says, the public believes everything they see on TV, and the media will chase stories out of fabricated government denials, then the group's task shouldn't be all that difficult.

The script, written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, uses its premise to poke fun at America's political and celebrity sensibilities. DeNiro as Brean is the consummate cynic and manipulator, always reminding his fellow conspirators that the only truth that matters is the one seen on TV, while Hoffman's Hollywood producer responds to the constant problems plaguing their fake war with the ebullient, "This is nothing! This is nothing!" Among the supporting players, Willie Nelson is charged with writing a war anthem but can't find anything that rhymes with "Albania," and Kristin Dunst is the ingenue who's heartbroken that she can't put her role as an Albanian war victim on her résumé. "Why not?" she asks. "We'd have to kill you," explains Brean.

Many critics will undoubtedly praise Wag the Dog as a stingingly effective satire on American society, but there seems to be a vital element missing from the film: a subtle undertone of moral outrage. Instead, the film resorts to a sort of wink-and-nudge in-crowd wit, as if to say, "Isn't it funny that Americans are so stupid?" The most poignant moments of the film involve Hoffman's almost childlike portrayal of Stanley Motss--his best acting in years--making clear the frightening reality that even well-intentioned, good-hearted people can perpetuate harmful stupidity and confusion. Nevertheless, the best political satire has a frightening quality that Wag the Dog seems afraid to go for. For stronger stuff, try Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts from 1992, chilling in its characterization of a Newt Gingrich-type politician's rise to power.

It's hard to criticize a film like Wag the Dog too much, though. For the most part, it's witty and intelligent, and political satire is something we need more of in American mass culture. For a film that never shows the president, Wag the Dog nonetheless makes an interesting critique of White House politics and power.

--Angie Drobnic

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Capsule Reviews
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Other Films by Barry Levinson
Disclosure
Liberty Heights
Sleepers
Sphere

Film Vault Suggested Links
The Sum of Us
In & Out
Election

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