When the President is caught in a sex scandal less than 2 weeks before election, White House spinmaster Conrad Brean creates a phony war with the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss. It’s a wickedly funny political satire that couldn’t be more timely.
Wag the Dog 8.5
eyelights: the core concept. the brilliant cast. the sharp dialogues.
eyesores: the borderline plausibility of it.
“We remember the slogans, we can’t even remember the fucking wars. You know why? That’s show business.”
‘Wag the Dog’ is a 1997 Barry Levinson film, starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Heche, that takes us into the final two weeks of an election campaign, just as a sex scandal involving the President is about to break. To counter this career-ending political damage, a team is rounded up to provide the media and the public with distractions. The picture revolves around their efforts to spin every bad news, to massage the message, manipulate events and contrive a victory.
It is one of the best political satires of the last two decades.
Interestingly, ‘Wag the Dog’ was released a month before the Bill Clinton sex scandal, leading many to see parallels between the fictional and real events – even though it’s loosely based on a 1993 novel, which was adapted by one writer and then rewritten by another. Unsurprisingly, the film was a box office success. But what’s astonishing is the quality of the work, given that the picture was shot in only 29 days; it even ended up receiving a handful of nominations and awards.
The first key ingredient is the script. Although it was initially written by Hilary Henkin, the dialogues are apparently all by David Mamet (who also modified the events). The dialogues are brimming with irony, cynicism and all manners of nuance that are pure delight. The situations already set up quite a lot of the film’s humour, but the way everything is delivered is pure genius. This would be a script worth reading on its own, and it would make for a terrific play (something Mamet excels at).
Then there is the cast.
Robert De Niro plays Conrad Brean, the so-called “Mr. Fix it” who has been called in at the last minute by one of the President’s operatives to get them through the election. De Niro is brilliant in this part in ways he hasn’t been in years; he masters Brean, giving him confidence and intelligence in a way that no one else could. His Brean is constantly thinking and you can see it in his eyes, on his face. He also keeps his cool throughout, no matter what unexpected problems they face.
His counterpart is Dustin Hoffman, who plays Stanley Motss, a big shot Hollywood film producer that Brean hires to help him produce a fake war to divert attention from the scandal. Hoffman eats the part up, mixing vanity and egotism with a playfulness and genius that confirms Brean’s trust in his abilities. Motss’ casual dismissing of every bump in the road, eagerly claiming to have far seen worse in his career, is hilarious; he delights in the challenges and proudly overcomes them.
There’s this terrific scene when Brean first goes to see Motss in his huge mansion (they’re stunned to discover that it’s bigger than the White House) and tries to convince him to join their team. Hoffman is incredulous at first, but his growing glee becomes infectious. He has the best zingers. When he asks Brean how close to the action they were, Brean asks him to dictate a few words for the President’s Press Secretary to say during a press conference, which he does live, as it’s dictated.
Wow. Double wow.
Anne Heche contributes a few layers of neurotic energy. I’ve never been a great fan of hers, but she really brings the character of Winifred Ames, the President’s operative, to life, making her feel sort of frazzled, but smart enough to see the right path and get the job done. She stammers, speaks half-thoughts, and feels like a side-kick because she doesn’t make any decisions – but she’s paid to act and react, not think. You have to wonder how long her nerves will hold up.
It’s amazing to watch Brean and Motss think out loud, connect the dots, invent stuff on the fly – both individually and as a team. They’re both extremely creative and clever, and they come up with ideas that no one else would have in the heat of the moment like that. I get a kick each time I watch the film. And watching Ames react to their output is a real hoot: she’s not just impressed, she’s bewildered – she can’t help but wonder how they’re ever going to pull any of this off.
There are also smaller parts played by Denis Leary, Willie Nelson and Andrea Martin, as Motss’ creative consultants, who hammer out a marketing campaign that includes all matters of trinkets. They are absolutely amazing and hilarious to watch in action, while they’re “cooking”. They’re also used to discuss the value of voting, as none of them (including Motss) vote, because it’s so far out of their sphere. When Leary’s Fad King explains exactly why he doesn’t, you can’t help but laugh at the irony.
Kirsten Dunst also makes an appearance as a young actress hired to play an Albanian girl in faked war footage that is going to be leaked to the media. It’s a small role, but a memorable one, as the girl becomes concerned that she will not be able to put this gig on her resume. William H Macy also has a small part as a CIA agent who interferes with the team when the agency discovers that they are manufacturing a war. The exchange between him and Brean, as he tries to convince him they’re right, is priceless.
Then there’s jaw-dropping turn by Woody Harrelson, as “Sergeant” Schumann, who is being used as a war hero by the team, in order to manufacture a swell of patriotism in the populace. He is not at all what anyone’s expected, however, and Harrelson uses his crazy energy just enough to make Schumann a stand out. Finally, there’s Craig T Nelson as Senator Neal, the President’s chief opponent. He is obviously well informed and knows what’s what; he relishes shooting holes in the team’s plans.
Even the music is brilliant. Composed by Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits fame), he contributed a delicate but whimsical score that befits the action; it serves as the perfect backdrop to the picture that it gives it a sense of momentum without being too dramatic or precious. Anyone who has liked some of the more subtle guitar work that Knopfler’s done in his career (including with Dire Straits, but also in solo work and other motion picture scores) would enjoy this one, brief though it may be.
Even the ending is pitch-perfect. Really, the only thing I don’t like about this picture is that I’m not 100% sure how any of this can be fabricated without it going public in some way. Given the number of people involved, how can they all be trusted to remain silent so that no one gets wind of the fabrications? In a day when leaks can easily happen (what with the extent of social media, ..etc.), how is any of this credible? Well, maybe there’s a way and I’m not aware of it. But it nags at me.
Beyond that, though, ‘Wag the Dog’ is brilliant comedy: it’s funny, it’s well-conceived and it’s thought-provoking; it lifts the veil on the shadows that divide politics and showbiz. I think that everyone should see it, if only to force people to consider these matters. You can’t watch a picture like this and not wonder what’s genuine and what’s fabricated in the political arena – and that’s good thing. We should always question, never take things at face value, always try to looks behind the curtain.
Otherwise, the tail truly does ending up wagging the dog.
Date of viewing: December 7, 2014