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Rarely can film satire make you laugh and be worried about the future
at the same time. Levinson's film does just that, with a great cast and
great writing, this film succeeds.
You may have noticed that many of the posts and reviews argue that this is not plausible. Obviously these posters do not realize that satire is supposed to be over the top and show what can happen in extremes, and ironically, this came out just after Clinton's sex scandal, and is still relevant today with George W. and will continue to be regardless of the president. Also, some may think it oversimplifies the public as idiots, but this isn't true, especially if they are being deceived and information is withheld. There are some implausibilities, as in why no reporters went to Albania or how other countries didn't get involved other than denying the charges, but these are small and even addressed in scenes with the rival candidates, news reporters and even CIA head William H. Macy.
Really I don't know how anyone can not like this film since it is smart, funny and scary all at once with fine performances and direction all around. This is an American political satire classic that is sadly becoming less satire as time goes on.
OVERALL: 9/10. Buy or at least rent before the satire becomes reality.
I saw this before the brouhaha with Clinton and Lewinsky broke, and I
imagine most of the negative comments about this film came because they saw
it after and thought this was a Nostradamus film. When I saw it, I thought
it started a bit slow, and was a bit too self-satisfied (like the scenes of
people crying at a concert; that seemed fake). However, for most of the
way, this is sharp, biting, and yes, funny, though when I first saw it, I
thought it was more accurate in its Hollywood satire than on its government
satire. Time, of course, proved me wrong.
David Mamet will never be universally loved, because not only does there seem to be a large group that doesn't get him, but that thinks those of us that like him are degenerates. Myself, I happen to think he's one of the best playwrights and screenwriters working today (though I'm split so far on his novels). His writing may be highly stylized, but I guess I'm in tune to the rhythms of his dialogue. And he doesn't assume his audience is dumb; rather, he seeks to challenge them by asking you to come to your own conclusions, rather than hit you over the head. And he does that very well in this movie; at the beginning, we may think Conrad Brean and Stanley Motss are real sleazebags, but at the end, while we deplore the action they take of faking a war just for political ends, we can't quite dismiss them either.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the performances of Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman (Anne Heche is also a standout as Winnifred Ames, the increasingly bemused presidential aide). DeNiro seems at first like a teddy bear here, with his beard, his hat, and his bow tie, but he transfers the energy associated with his more volatile roles (TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS et al) to guile and street smarts here. The way his eyes probe whoever he's talking to, and the way he anticipates almost every verbal comeback the other person has demonstrates that(he can't anticipate every event, of course, but once he gets used to it, he can).
But the standout here is Hoffman. There's been a lot of comment on Hoffman basing his character on Robert Evans. My own theory is he read Lynda Obst's excellent book HELLO, HE LIED, which talks about the producer's role, and simply played that. I formed that theory because of his mantra whenever things go wrong, "This is nothing!", especially when Winnifred reads him the riot act after their plane crashes. There's a part in the book where Obst talks about having to argue budget with the studio, and realizes it's all a game where they have roles to play; she argues for more money, the studio for less. Just as Winnifred's role is to be pessimistic, and Stanley's is to be optimistic. And Hoffman never condescends to Stanley, instead showing a talented, maybe amoral guy who deep down is so insecure that he values credit even over his life("F*** my life, I want the credit!" is one of the best lines of the film"). Contrary to his line, this film is not nothing.
I do not understand the people who did not like the movie. For me this is the greatest political satire since Chaplin's "The great dictator". Both de Niro and Hoffman are great as well. This movie is not about Clinton although they did predict correctly the Kosovo war, and Albanian terrorists. It is about American political system which is made by and for TV. Several lines from that movie ("Why Albania?" - "Why not?", "Albania does not rhyme", "What do you remember about the Gulf war? One smart bomb... I was in that building when we shot that shot", and many more) are impossible to forget because everyday political life does not let us forget them.
Barry Levinson's under-rated "Wag the Dog" is a brilliant piece of satire which is to the 1990s what "All the President's Men" was to the 1970s. The president is in trouble after a sexual scandal with an under-aged girl. Enter Robert DeNiro and Anne Heche who want to distract the nation with something else as they try to get their boss out of the hot seat. The only problem is: nothing is going on. So it is up to them to create something to rally the country around the executive-in-chief. Now enter sleazy, but high class Hollywood director Dustin Hoffman (in a well-deserved Oscar-nominated turn) who is contacted to start an imaginary war. He agrees and the plan works, but as time goes by more and more problems occur and the lies continue to snow-ball. Levinson's excellent direction and Hilary Henkin's clever screenplay raise the performances of all involved. Naturally DeNiro and Hoffman are guaranteed to excel in a film like this, but good work is also done by people like Heche, Denis Leary, William H. Macy, Woody Harrelson and even Willie Nelson (!?). Somewhat ignored in 1997, but still one of the best films of that year and one of the more important films of the 1990s. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Wag the Dog is a brilliant satire of the American political system with enough realism to make it plausible. It speaks the strongest to people who already have a visceral loathing of the American democratic process (not how it was in 1789 but how it is now). They see a degraded and ignorant public easily duped by politicians who are no more than habitual liars who will say anything to get elected but lack any idealism whatsoever. Intelligent, funny, but also very depressing, 9/10.
During the campaign to re-elect the president of America, an underage sex
scandal between a girl scout and the president in the oval office. To
divert attention spin doctor Conrad Brean is called in to manage the fall
out and hold it off for the 11 days till the election. Conrad employs
Hollywood producer Stanley Motss to produce a war in Albania to divert the
media away from the real story.
This was made before Clinton was accused of misconduct with Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent re-start of military action in Iraq. This seemed to give it a much greater feel of realism and much more credibility. However even before this happened it was still a very sharp and very good satire on political spin, but also managing to have a dig at Hollywood movie types. The story is told in a very stage-play fashion and is dialogue driven with very funny moments throughout. It's not as terrifying as a real look at media manipulation could be because it chooses to be a comedy instead but it still makes plenty of valid points.
The two leads are excellent at the head of an all-star cast. De Niro manages to be a professor-style character while at the same time having an easily accessible sense of menace just beneath the surface. Hoffman is good sending up Hollywood producers well and drawing parallels between the creation of a film and the creation of political news stories. The cast also has a series of cameos and extended cameos who add both humour and quality to the film - Willie Nelson, Denis Leary, James Belsuhi, William H Macy etc.
Recently in the UK we've had huge problems with spin doctors running the Labour Government - to the extent that 11th September was described as "good" by one as it gave them the chance to bury several bad news stories that they had stored up. And more recently with various Governments' waging a media war to win support their stance regarding military action. This film doesn't make hugely serious points but it does make you think about how the media is used to shape public perception and make us think what those in charge want us to think.
Overall a very funny, very clever satire that has a great cast, the only criticism being that it stretches it's point a little too far with the "old shoe" section.
It had been a while since I last watched this film, but I once again remembered the reasons why I loved it so. Thoughtful and evocative, this film really captured the nature of politics and spin doctoring. This certainly ranks as one of the best political comedies of all time. The over-the-top attitude of the film didn't detract from anything, making this still quite believable. It also demonstrated how people's emotions can be manipulated when aggressively attacked. The fragile nature of the human spirit tends to make us more susceptible to such manipulations, as demonstrated in this film. With the exception of Anne Heche, everyone's performance in this film was rather good. The only other downside was Mark Knopfler's score, which was completely out of place in this film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. The story is probably familiar so
I'll just summarize it. The president of the USA gets caught having sex
with a teenage Firefly Girl and DeNiro and Heche hire Dustin Hoffman,
an old Hollywood hand, to produce a distracting event, like a war with
Albania, to flood the media and distract the public's attention for
long enough (11 days) for the president to be reelected.
One thing after another goes wrong and each time Hoffman comes up with yet another colorful lie to extend the life of the story. The CIA publicly ends the war prematurely? No problem. "This is NOTHING!" cries Hoffman, "You ought to try shooting 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' when two of the four horseman die two weeks after the beginning of principal photography!" No war? No problem. Hoffman invents a hero who was left behind in an Albanian prison camp. "Every war has a hero." The man chosen to be the hero -- Woody Harrelson -- turns out to have spent the last twelve years in a military prison for raping a nun. Lies are piled upon lies.
We all know that political spin is put on everything that happens in Washington. This movie came out in 1997 during Clinton's presidency but he never started a war to deflect criticism. And yet the way Levinson has directed it, and the way the performers attack their roles, it is almost completely believable that deceptions like this take place. Hoffman stretches his acting a bit but he is never so hammy that he is unbelievable as a Hollywood producer. "Ramon, bring me my veggie shake now." And, "They told me I couldn't make 'Moby Dick' from the point of view of the whale!" He brings to the part some of the smooth-talking duplicity that he showed in "Papillon" and "Midnight Cowboy." He glows with self satisfaction as he spells out his accomplishments to DeNiro. "This is the greatest thing I've ever done, bringing this war to a satisfactory conclusion." DeNiro: "But there was no war." Hoffman: "That makes it all the more difficult." Nobody else is in the least bit over the top. They play it the way Levinson directs it, as a realistic straightforward story. None of the actors seems to know that he or she is in a comedy and it works very well.
I don't think I'll mention any more of the gags because I don't want to spoil it. But it's hard to forget the scene near the end of the film when Hoffman is looking out the window at the funeral of Harrelson's character. Huge American flags, the casket being carried by the "men of the 303" (invented for the occasion). Hoffman spreads his arms expansively and says to DeNiro -- "Look at it. The whole thing is a ******* fraud, and yet it's 100 percent honest!" A victim of his own egotism, Hoffman decides that he wants credit for the production and is perfunctorily disposed of, having "suffered a massive heart attack poolside."
This was probably a funnier movie when it first appeared. President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp and all that. A war built on a string of lies seemed so outrageous that it was impossible to take a movie like this seriously. Well, circumstances change. The movie is still a great success but my heart sank at the sight of the flag-draped coffin returning from "Albania." The story seems equally outrageous now, but in a very different sense of the word.
Can a movie created in the late 90s still speak to a voting audience in
the late 2000s? Prior to "Wag the Dog" my answer would be "no", but
watching, and now re-watching it for a second time in the past week,
this film could be watched today, watched next year, or even watched
prior to the next four elections, and it would continue to feel
current, real, and modern in today's political/cinematical world. The
power of the dialogue, the intense chemistry of the characters, and the
constant interruption of the television generation into the political
world will continue to keep "Wag the Dog" out of the black hole of
cinema it will not be dated, never forgotten, and forever enjoyed. As
we continue to allow CNN to give us our news, this film will remain as
vivid as America's apple pie.
Act I: The Chemistry of the Characters
Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman could play chess for three hours, and it would capture my attention from beginning to end. DeNiro is a powerhouse of an actor, not just because he can play the tough gangster type, but also because he can take a character like Brean and give us simple, verbose, and intelligent. His range can be seen throughout this film. He commands each scene that he is in, focusing our attention on each of his words and lingering on his next move. In my eyes, it is more powerful than "Goodfellas" or "Casino" because of his subtle nature. The scene that stands out for me in "Wag the Dog" that requires viewing for DeNiro's talent is that between CIA Agent William H. Macy and DeNiro discussing the honesty of the war on Albania. To me, this shows the power of his talent.
Jumping onto the other side of this film, there is Dustin Hoffman. While DeNiro pulls his obvious strengths with this film, Hoffman makes "Wag the Dog" more than just a political film. Listening to the commentary, Hoffman discusses the fact that he nearly didn't make this film because he couldn't find Motss's character. Thankfully he did, due to his compelling portrayal; we are taken from political conspiracy cinema to this raw human drama. The final act was sublime due to both DeNiro and Hoffman's chemistry, but also because we believed Motss' words. As audience members, we wanted to see him tell his story (knowing that he never would). It was the human element, the Motss' true self, that we were drawn to, and Hoffman stayed true to those moments until the very end. This isn't your typical Hollywood happy film, this basis itself on albeit conspiracies but honest conspiracies. Could you survive the greatest hoax ever and promise not to tell a soul? Surrounding these characters, we had Willie Nelson, Denis Leary, Anne Heche, Kirsten Dunst, William H. Macy, John Michael Higgins, and who could forget Woody Harrelson. These are our players, and they take us from scene to scene with the greatest of ease.
Act II: The Writing & the Directing
David Mamet. Does anything else need to be said? Having been a full time follower of his work, I was not surprised to see that it was his quick-witted words coming from our characters' mouths. It is the fast-paced level of intellectual banter that transforms "Wag the Dog" into the powerhouse that it is. It works because you finish watching the characters actions and it is the words you find yourself quoting for weeks after. Mamet's political punch to this film was reminiscent of Kubrick's ideas behind "Dr. Strangelove". The two were films that were absurd, but it was also the ideals that they were satirizing that makes both viewable today; just as powerful as they were when they were released. Mamet's words with Barry Levinson's direction takes "Wag the Dog" into perfection. There are no heroes, there are no villains, and we know so little about the characters that it is simply the story, or the words, that pull us into this film. The beats are hit, the angles are crisp and tight, and our characters are perfection possibly the best casting in years. With this in mind, we have only the third act remaining cause, as everyone knows there is always a third act!
Act III: The Final Thought
Overall, "Wag the Dog" is perfect. Very few films in my eyes fully carry the honor of being watchable at any time, any decade, or any political year but "Wag the Dog" does. Watching with a group of friends, I was surprised as to how many had not seen this feature, remembering that it had been birthed nearly 11 years ago, it still seemed surprising. "Wag the Dog" overturns those political conspiracy theories and makes you laugh, think, and realize the impact of our commercial media. It was enjoyable to hear the current terms like "plumber" and "commercial president" in this 1997 film, boasting the truth that this film was made before its time. Looking back, there are those that could complain about our premise being too cliché, that the same conspiracy theories have been done again and again, but to me, this was fresh. This entire film was fast-paced, amazingly acted, and media driven. In the commentary, it is talked about how it is rumored that the media doesn't even check sources any further, and this is a glowing example of that regime.
Grade: ***** out of *****
Hollywood is sometimes able to produce satirical films that, in
appear to predict future developments in American politics. `Being There',
the story of a simple man whose homespun philosophy is taken for profound
wisdom and who, as a result, becomes a candidate for President, may look
like a satire on the Reagan administration, but in fact it was actually
released in 1979, during the Carter years. `Dave', which features a
womanising President called Bill whose marriage is in trouble because of
adulterous relationships and his trimming of his radical principles, came
out in 1993, just after Bill Clinton had taken office. It must, however,
have been planned well in advance and was presumably not actually intended
as anti-Clinton satire, but that is how it tends to come across today.
`Wag the Dog' is another film that proves to have been unintentionally prophetic. Shortly before an election, the President is embroiled in a potentially explosive sex scandal which threatens to end his presidency in disgrace. In order to distract the public's attention, his advisers concoct a wholly fictitious military crisis in the Balkans and hire a Hollywood producer to provide the necessary harrowing footage of war scenes. When the Albanian government protest that their country is not in fact at war, the aides present this as a triumph of American diplomacy that has averted the threatened crisis, and, in order to keep the affair in the public's mind, concoct a further sub-plot involving a supposed military hero (in real life a convicted rapist in a military prison) held prisoner by a rebel faction.
All of this may seem very familiar, but bear in mind that this film was made in 1997, two years before President Clinton, faced with a potentially explosive sex scandal which for a time threatened to end his presidency in disgrace, took America to war over a crisis in the Balkans. At least he didn't need to concoct a fictitious war. The parallels with the more recent Iraq war are perhaps less exact, although the scenes involving the supposed hero `Old Shoe' were strongly reminiscent of the ballyhoo surrounding Private Jessica Lynch.
Like `Being There', `Wag the Dog' is not, of course, a work of social realism. In real life, a simpleton like Chance could not become President without being found out, and no administration could actually get away with inventing a bogus war. (That's why they have to provide real ones). In order to make a satirical point, both films exaggerate prevalent tendencies in modern political life. `Being There', among other things, is about self-deception- Chance never pretends to be anything he is not, but those around him deceive themselves by seeing him as what they want him to be. `Wag the Dog', on the other hand, is about political `spin' and the deliberate deception of the public. Politicians try and deceive as many of the people for as much of the time as they think they can get away with, and the media will go along with such deception for as long as it is in their interest.
`Wag the Dog' has some sharp points to make, and there is a very good performance from Dustin Hoffman as the Hollywood producer Stanley Motss. Motss is recognisably suffering from status anxiety in its most acute form- the form that afflicts the brilliantly successful and wealthy man who still feels undervalued by society and will do anything, however unethical or even dangerous to his own safety, to win public recognition. (He complains that there is no Academy Award specifically for producers, ignoring the fact that one is not needed because the producer traditionally receives the Best Picture award).
Despite that, however, I felt that the film as a whole was not as sharp or as funny as it could have been. I think the reason is that it is basically a one-joke film; once the war story has been exploded, the plot tends to lose direction. The idea of concocting a wholly bogus war is a brilliantly surreal satirical conceit; the idea of concocting a bogus hostage drama, although more inherently plausible, lacks the same inventiveness, so the `Old Shoe' scenes come as something of an anti-climax after what has gone before. I felt that Robert de Niro as the presidential aide Conrad Brean was less effective than Hoffman; I have never thought that comedy is his forte and that he is at his best in serious roles. (I may be judging unfairly, as there are several of his comedies that I have not seen). I also felt that it was a mistake not to show the President in the film- this may not be a realistic film, but the idea that a spin doctor could create a fictitious war without even the President being aware of what is going on strains credibility past its limits. Moreover, as we found out with Nixon and his attempted cover-up of the Watergate affair, the culture of spin involves our elected leaders themselves, not just members of their staff. Overall the film had its moments but could have been better. 6/10.
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