WAG THE DOG (1997)

  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Writers: Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, based on the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, Woody Harrelson, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Kirsten Dunst, William H. Macy, Craig T. Nelson, and John Michael Higgins
  • Accolades: 2 Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Dustin Hoffman, Best Adapted Screenplay), Silver Bear – Berlin International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with Hoopla (library app), Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I have sort of unique relationship with Wag the Dog because there was a time in my life, around Middle School, when I would have told you that it was my favorite movie, bar none. One thing that tells you is that I hadn’t seen that many “adult” movies at that point (this may have been the first R-rated movie I ever saw in a movie theater). Another thing is that I was a young whippersnapper who was absolutely convinced I was right about a lot of things. A third thing, which might seem strange given the plot of this movie, is that I was probably more idealistic then, I believed in politics in a way I definitely do not now. This movie plays with the idea of subverting political mores, but it exists in a world where those mores are publicly, strenuously upheld.

Wag the Dog stars Robert De Niro as “Mr. Fix-It,” called in by the top White House political operative (Anne Heche)  when, two weeks before the U.S. Presidential Election, allegations break that the President committed “sexual misconduct” with a young girl in the Oval Office. As before this the President was “leading the polls by 17 points” over his challenger Senator Neal (Craig T. Nelson), De Niro sets out to run a holding action until the election. This involves bringing in a big shot Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman, apparently impersonating famous real life producer Robert Evans) for the purpose of faking a war with Albania to distract everyone. This leads to many jokes about the similarities between Hollywood and DC, such as the scene where the President insists that the cat being held by a frightened villager girl (Kirsten Dunst) in the “news footage” Hoffman is producing be white instead of calico. 

After CIA agents (led by William H. Macy) leak to the media that the war is over, Hoffman saves the day by creating an “Act Two” in which a fictional war hero named William Schumann has been “trapped behind enemy lines” and must be rescued. This runs off the rails after the real William Schumann (Woody Harrelson) turns out to be completely psychotic and spent the last 12 years in military prison because he “raped a nun,” and then the plane crashes, leading to one of the better swearing scenes in the repertoire of writer David Mamet, and that’s saying something:

The movie worked at the time because it was, in fact, very funny, rapid fire from beginning to end. It had the good parts of Mamet with the hyper-masculine dumb parts. Roger Ebert called it the best kind of satire, which is just out beyond the realm of reality, and compared it to Dr. Strangelove. You think there’s no way it could be true, but when you’re trying to get to sleep at night… Watching it now for the first time in many years, I was struck by how many of the running gags I recalled, and how many I hadn’t even really picked up on as a kid. Dustin Hoffman’s producer stories, which always start with “This is nothing,” escalate throughout the movie. “I produced The Four Horsemen. Week before production was supposed to start, three of the horsemen died!” “They said I couldn’t remake Moby Dick from the point of view of the whale, but they were wrong!” The scene where Macy’s CIA agent pulls Heche and De Niro into an empty Mexican restaurant concludes in what is still one of my favorite monologues, given by De Niro, which ends with his emphatic statement: “If your satellites don’t show any war, what are they good for, because there ain’t no war but ours!?!”

Not that long after Wag the Dog hit theaters, however, it remained relevant for other reasons. 1998, of course, was the year of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, which did indeed include suspiciously-timed bombings in the Middle East, which some alleged were meant to distract from the scandal. The following year, the film made news again during the conflict in Kosovo, which from a loosely-informed perspective looked an awful lot like the US declaring war on Albania out of nowhere, as happens in this movie. This movie did not invent the phrase “wag the dog,” but it was obscure enough at the time to warrant text explaining it at the start of the movie: “A dog wags his tail because the dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.” The movie made “wagging the dog” into an actual political term for taking back control of the story, one that you’ll still hear today.

So around 1999, this movie was considered surprisingly prescient, but now it seems almost quaint, and I don’t mean just because nobody in this movie has a smart phone (in one scene, De Niro pulls out a cell phone to feed info to the White House Press Secretary (John Michael Higgins) and Hoffman is very impressed). It seems to subscribe to the extremely 90s viewpoint that things are basically going OK: this is a Presidential election in which nobody seems to have any problems, in which the President can base an election strategy around the slogan “Don’t Change Horses in Midstream,” and be up by double digits in the polls. No parties are mentioned, because in this world the parties don’t matter, all politicians are equally out for themselves and will implement whatever policy will get them the most votes. Perhaps most of all, this is a movie about “Fake News” that has never actually heard that term. After Senator Neal goes on TV and announces the war is over, De Niro and Heche slump in their chairs. “Of course the war is over,” De Niro explains to Hoffman, “I saw it on TV.” It doesn’t seem to occur to any of them to flatly deny it, nor does it occur to them, or the movie in general, that maybe most of the President’s supporters will not be swayed by anything as inconsequential as a sex scandal. This is a movie that believes politicians will do anything to get elected, but it means Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush. This movie hasn’t come up with Donald Trump in its worst nightmares.

I love the dialogue in this movie, but I think in some ways it is also one of the numerous reasons why, though I still love Wag the Dog, pretty much from beginning to end, it is no longer in the conversation for my “favorite” movie. Director Barry Levinson, nine years after winning a Best Director Oscar for another Hoffman collaboration, Rain Man, basically points his camera at the actors and lets them go. The movie made a huge profit on a small budget that must have gone almost entirely to actor salaries, because in production values it appears to be exactly the same as your average episode of The West Wing (which began within a few months of this movie’s release). If you told me they were filmed on the same set, I’d believe you.

Another reason that Wag the Dog no longer holds quite the magic for me that it once did is that it is a relic of a time when irony still had things to say about politics. De Niro’s character, in particular, can’t quite help but smirk at times about how clever he is. In one scene, Hoffman and his creative team (including Denis Leary as “the Fad King” and Willie Nelson as essentially himself) go around the table and each explains that they’ve never voted for President. Leary says he doesn’t vote because “I voted for Boog Powell for the All-Star Game but he didn’t get in, I’m still hurting about that,” while Andrea Martin’s costume designer says she “gets claustrophobic in those little booths.” Today, the stakes feel too high for smirking, and it’s hard to remember that the characters saying those things isn’t supposed to make us immediately want to strangle them. The only character who actually cares about the outcome of the election is Anne Heche’s, but her interest is entirely based on losing her job (“I’ll have to sell my house,” she worries in one dark moment), and you don’t get the sense that even she cares about anyone’s competing health care plans. Wag the Dog has a lot of extremely good jokes, piled on top of a vaguely cynical attitude toward politics that was par for the course in the 90s, but today feels incredibly uninformed and unexamined. Another way to say this might be that Wag the Dog is certainly a biting, hilarious satire, but today can’t quite escape the fact that it’s made by, written by, and generally for Baby Boomers, and it comes at politics from their perspective.

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