In order to make true movie satire work, you have to keep the running
time relatively short and the target of your subject matter should be
something or someone that movie audiences despise. 1964's 'Dr
Strangelove' which elevated director Stanley Kubrick's career and showed
technology running amok and the eventual dehumanization of 'the system'
for which Kubrick became famous, was an important first step in the
intellectual progression of movie making which allowed its
creators to become more daring with every attempt.
When I first saw screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky's 'Network', made in 1976,
a scathing satire and indictment of the television industry, I was
completely taken with its message of powerful corporate types engaged in
an illegal lust for power by doing whatever was necessary to keep their
television company on top of the world, including killing a former news
anchorman turned tabloid prophet because he had low ratings. I never
thought I would see such a film again and I still haven't but 'Wag the
Dog' is the best satire I've seen since the two movies mentioned above
'Wag the Dog' hides nothing from the audience in showing political
advisers counting on the major population's lack of attention span and
virtually insulting the average person's intelligence in diverting the
facts away from the real issues of presidential misconduct. The current
president is accused of having sex with a teen aged girl who belongs to
an organization similar to the girl scouts and the election is less than
two weeks away. The president's opponents get wind of the story and use
it to their advantage.
This movie showcases the theory that asks: "If a tree falls in the
forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound"? You'll
find this to be true as the film dives right in in the opening ten
minutes and shows the president's top advisers meeting with a political
spin doctor (Robert De Niro) who is an expert at drawing the public's
attention away from the facts by using the media. It's a meeting that
takes place deep within the farthest basement of the White House and
although the public never sees these meetings, we know they take place.
'Network' used the medium of television and accomplished the task of
increasing public cynicism for the greater good of shaking up 'the
system' and now 'Wag the Dog' does the same in a different story.
To truly accomplish the mission, De Niro and a top aid to the president
(Anne Heche), travel to Los Angeles to seek the help of a top Hollywood
producer (Dustin Hoffman) to succeed in their task. After explaining
the situation, Hoffman is both shocked and somewhat fascinated with the
prospect of engaging in a deliciously tempting project, seduced by the
fraudulent aspects of it and the challenge of creating a fraud and if
the public buys it, Hoffman knows it will be the best work of his career
even though he can't ever tell anybody about it.
Hoffman's portrayal of this magnificent character is one of brash vanity
combined with a slightly eccentric twist of personality. De Niro is
somewhat sedated in his role but it is clear that his character is one
of a low profile so audiences shouldn't mistake it as a slacking
performance, just one suitable to the movie's plot.
Based on the book 'American Hero' by Larry Beinhart, Hilary Henkin and
David Mamet's script has a back up plan, a plan 'b' if you will, that
takes shape in light of the partially failed attempt by the movie's
characters to totally carry out the plan outlined in the basic plot. It
moves to create a false sense of hope and patriotism among the public
that makes the presidential scandal at hand mild and innocuous.
Barry Levinson's light handed direction and crafty decision to make the
screenplay the picture's real star are balanced with the cast's
willingness to do the same and at a running time of 96 minutes, 'Wag the
Dog' has a conclusion which enforces its basic theme and message of
deception while never losing sight of the fact that it's a comedy!
Copyright © 1997 Walter Frith