Saturday, 21 March 2020

Movie Review: Wag The Dog (1997)


A satire about the power of spin doctoring in politics, Wag The Dog is never less than over the top, but also always funny.

The United States presidential election is eleven days away. The President is running for re-election, but is suddenly facing damaging accusations of sexual misconduct. Renowned spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is called in to manage the crisis. Working with presidential aid Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), he starts to conceive of a war scenario with Albania to distract the press.

Conrad and Winifred recruit Hollywood movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to help the cause. He assembles a group of creative artists to create the justification for war, complete with a made-up story of a suitcase nuclear bomb hidden in Canada, fake Albanian village vignettes, manufactured patriotic songs and imaginary victims. When CIA agents disrupt the bogus war narrative, Conrad and Stanley pivot towards a prisoner-of-war sob story featuring Sergeant William Schumann (Woody Harrelson) as a soldier in need of rescue.

In 1998 President Bill Clinton became embroiled in the sex scandal featuring White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and by 1999 the United States was bombing Yugoslavia. By 2016 the concept of fake news and alternative facts had become part of the political lexicon. But before all the jaw-dropping reality came the prescient fiction. Director Barry Levinson brought Wag The Dog to the screen with almost perfect timing, screenwriters Hilary Henkin and David Mamet adapting the 1993 book American Hero by Larry Beinhart just in time to grab an I-told-you-so front seat to history.

In turns funny, ludicrous and cutting, the film never pretends to be anything other than a broad satire. The spin doctoring to create and then capitalize upon a non-existent war is beyond any realms of reality, but Levinson runs with it as a plot device to poke fun at the extremes of both Washington DC and Hollywood. Nothing is sacred, least of all the truth, as Conrad, Stanley and their assembled entourage of talented artists allow their imaginations to run wild. They then possess and can deploy unlimited resources to turn their fantasies into a polished visual and aural reality to dominate the attention of a nation.

And even when CIA agents shine a light upon the grand ruse of a non-existent war with Albania, the subterfuge does not stop. Now the story of Sergeant William Schumann, complete with the nickname Old Shoe, is concocted. Just when it seems the film is stretching its own incredulity too thin, Woody Harrelson arrives with a hilariously edgy performance deserving its own narrative. The Schumann character proves too hot handle even for the combined manipulative skills of Conrad and Stanley, and still they will not give up on their lofty plan to achieve mass distraction.

The lead performances are happy to yield to the enormous wackiness. Veterans Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman easily bounce each off other with relaxed portrayals of men good at what they do, comfortable in their own skin, and aware they are still stronger as a team. In an underwritten role, Anne Heche suffers in comparison. Willie Nelson appears as a grizzled songwriter recruited to provide the soundtrack to a crisis, although Levinson is guilty of giving all the incidental mock artefacts too much screen time, as well as a surplus of self-congratulatory moments.

Wag The Dog is happy to propose that everything perceived as fact may be an artistic creation in service of  nefarious objectives. The rich and powerful not only influence history, but also bankroll the peddling of absurd alternative realities to serve selfish agendas. It's an entertaining premise, and at least in spirit, painfully close to the truth.






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