WAG THE DOG
It's presidential election time. Days left, and the approval ratings
gap between the incumbent (never seen) and his challenger (Craig T. Nelson)
is critically close. Then, catastrophe: a sex scandal involving the president.
(Since when has that been a problem?) So how do we, the committee to re-elect,
deal with this how do we draw attention away from the scandal and
widen the gap? Why, it's simple: We'll tell the media there's a war against
Albania, win it, and make the president the hero.
Conrad Bream (Robert DeNiro) is a spin doctor who is an expert at creating
such theatre. "It's not a war," he says when questioned about
his radical plan. "It's a pageant." When presidential aide Winifred
Ames (Anne Heche) hires him to make this scandal go away, he goes to famed
movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). Between the two of them,
and with the help of several of Stanley's friends in the business, a plan
is hatched that will save the election but no one is ever allowed
to talk about their participation, including the egotistical Stanley, who
continually gripes about the injustice of being an unsung movie producer.
"There's no Oscar for producer," he complains.
They hire a songwriter (Willie Nelson) to write patriotic songs, a fashion
designer (Andrea Martin) to design dashing uniforms for the special forces,
a merchandizing specialist (Denis Leary) to come up with slogans, hats,
and various gimmicks, and they create a national anti-Albania movement,
complete with an American POW played by Woody Harrelson.
The script for Wag The Dog, written by David Mamet & Hilary
Henkin, based on the book American Hero by Larry Beinhart, is fun
but not very believable. As the team continues to encounter disasterous
roadblocks to their plan, they are always able to bounce back with incredible
agility. In his reactions to the many problems, Stanley's ever-optimistic
motto "This is nothing!" is run so far into the ground it ceases
to be funny. The constant brainstorming between Stanley and Conrad is quite
interesting to watch, but their Mutual Admiration Society grows tiresome.
Hoffman and DeNiro have no trouble with these roles, of course, although
Hoffman is obviously straining to distance Stanley from his similar character
in the recent Mad City. His arrogance
masked with false humility is fun to watch because at some time or other
we have all known or worked with this type of phony. DeNiro fails to make
it through this movie without being responsible for any deaths, but his
character is enjoyably un-tough. Harrelson's take on the criminal cast as
war hero is somewhat off the mark; his character comes off more cartooney
than it was meant to be, but unfortunately director Barry Levinson didn't
interfere with this. Heche's characterization is also a little scatter-brained
for what her job is supposed to be; I can't imagine any president hiring
her for his top aide. That would be like choosing a vice president who can't
Actually, the media is not portrayed as evil in this film, just stupid. They unquestioningly believe everything fed to them by our team of storytellers and fork it over to the American public, who in turn laps it right up. In fact, just about everybody (including the president) is willing to go along with this story, whether or not they know it's a sham. The implication that Americans are either liars or gullible believers of lies is not very flattering, but anyone who has witnessed a presidential election in this century would have to admit some elements are familiar. ***
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