Why does a dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail was smarter, it would wag the dog.
"Wag the Dog" is a subversive satire of the blurred distinction between politics and show business. Shot in less than a month for the low cost of $15 million, it emerged from a joint project between the production companies of director Barry Levinson (director of "Rain Main" and the upcoming "Sphere"), and stars Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. Already, it has been embroiled in controversy, though not stemming from its subject matter. Director Levinson has threatened to quit the Writers Guild of America after a ruling denied sole screenwriting credit for writer David Mamet and awarded the first position credit to Hilary Henkin, the screenwriter who penned the first draft of the script from Larry Beinhart's novel "American Hero". According to Levinson, Mamet had never read the novel nor Henkin's script, and the only commonality between Henkin's draft and the shooting script was the premise of a make-believe war. Citing clear-cut differences between the two scripts, including the entire Hollywood-angle and the soldier left behind enemy lines in Mamet's creation, Levinson appealed the ruling, but was rebuffed. Which should make things interesting at the podium if Mamet and Henkin end up sharing a Golden Globe or Oscar award for the script.
If it's on television, it must be real.
But I digress. "Wag the Dog" begins two weeks before an election, and the President (Michael Benson) finds himself mired in a sex scandal involving an underage Firefly girl. It doesn't take long for the President's challenger, Senator John Neal (Craig T. Nelson of the TV series "Coach") to exploit this by using the old standard "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in his latest television ad campaign, and the ditzy White House aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche, seen last in "I Know What You Did Last Summer") must come up with a plan to distract the media-savvy American public. She enlists the help of seemingly-bewildered schmuck Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro, who played a seemingly-bewildered schmuck in "Jackie Brown"), a diva of disinformation, who can spin-doctor any sad situation six ways to Sunday. With a track record of having engineered several international crises (including the invasion of Grenada and the Gulf War), Brean comes up with official denials for the of the non-existent B-3 bomber program and a war against Albania to push the Firefly incident off the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
Do you realize that there's no Academy Award for producing... no one knows what we do.
Brean and Ames then fly off to California to the mansion of producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), recruiting him to help produce the war. With the assistance of Brean's cronies, the Fad King (Denis Leary), Liz Butsky (SCTV alumnus Andrea Martin), and musician Johnny Green (Willie Nelson), the pageantry of a war is conceived, complete with faked news footage of a young Albanian girl (Kirsten Dunst) fleeing her village, jingoistic jingles, merchandising tie-ins, photo opportunities, rousing speeches, and a hero for the American people to rally around, Sgt. William Schumann (Woody Harrelson), allegedly left behind enemy lines and tortured by cruel Albanian terrorists.
WTD certainly starts off strongly, with snappy dialogue and pointed observations about the absurd nihilism of political intrigue, but half-way through, the film seems to run out of steam, the caustic wit losing its acerbity under the weight of the inside-jokes and referential satire. Thankfully, the pic doesn't wander beyond an hour-and-a-half, and there are certainly enough pop-culture allusions and moments of incredulity-that-could-pass-for-reality to keep your interest, such as a spontaneous display of patriotism by high school students who throw their running shoes onto a basketball court in support of William 'Old Shoe" Schumann.
Levinson's direction betrays his hyper-reality visual mannerism, perfected on the television series he exec-produces "Homicide: Life on the Street", with its freehand camera work, dramatic zoom-ins, and rapid-fire cutting. One interesting visual technique used by Levinson, to serve as a metaphor to the 'filtering' effect of the media, is the repeated distancing of the audience from the action. Throughout WTD, Levinson will present the action 'second-hand', after it has been distorted or strained by other media. For example, we see Brean making his way through the White House through the eyes of the numerous video surveillance cameras, the war-planning effort is contorted through the water of Motss' swimming pool, and even the outcome of their efforts are reflected on the ceaseless video- and sound-bites.
Hoffman is perfect as the underappreciated producer, a comic character that he plays with an energetic fanaticism. However, the character of Brean seems miscast as a silver-tongued spin-doctor-- his performance seems tired and lacks the intensity that would be needed for a 'Mr. Fixit'. Heche is quite capable as the counterpoint to the two male leads, balancing their superficial cheerleading with a shade of self-conscious unease.
"Wag the Dog" is an intelligent work of lampoonery that is thought-provokingly cynical. Though the film begins to drag halfway through, leading up to a somber resolution, there are still enough moments of sheer comic polish to guarantee a good time.