Wag the Dog

Movie Information

Genre: Political Satire
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary
Rated: R

Back in 1967 in his How I Won the War, Richard Lester included a fantasticated scene involving WW II-era British officers trading bubblegum cards of famous battles and war atrocities (“I’ve got ‘Alamein.’ I want ‘School Bombing'”). By the time of Desert Storm, the real world had caught up with Lester’s satirical notion — there actually were such trading cards put out during the war itself.

By 1997, when Wag the Dog appeared on the scene, it included a character named Fad King (Denis Leary), whose profession was developing tie-in merchandise for just these occasions. Even if Fad King is a wholly fictional creature — either from the brains of novelist Larry Beinhart, or screenwriters David Mamet and Hilary Henkin — I have little doubt that his real-life counterpart will soon exist, if he doesn’t already.

For that matter, reality has already caught up with some aspects of Wag the Dog. The jingoistic songs that Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson) is hired to pen — between bouts of drinking — have found a real-life parallel in Clint Black’s “Iraq and Roll,” though Black seems to have done that under his own steam.

The point and thrust of Wag the Dog is to depict the world of political spin-doctoring and the lengths to which politicos will go to save their own careers. In the film, a nameless (and never shown) president who’s been caught for improper relations with an underage girl tries to distract the public from the scandal with the aid of spin-doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro). Brean enlists the aid of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to create “news” footage of a wholly fictional war in Albania (chosen primarily because no one really seems to know where it is), while he and his staff whip up other PR campaigns.

Brilliantly scripted and acted to the point where even Barry Levinson’s typically uninspired direction doesn’t matter, Wag the Dog is close to the end-all be-all of political satire … for now. Rated R for language.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

[Rounding out film critic Peter Loewer’s film series, entitled “Wag the Dog: Three Political Fables,” is All the President’s Men on Wednesday, Sept, 14, and Wag the Dog, on Thursday, Sept 15. Both films will be shown at 6 p.m. in Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium.]

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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