Program Notes: Wag the Dog (1997)
Wag the Dog is a case of a bunch of big, big names – director Barry Levinson, writer David Mamet, stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro – pulling a “hey, kids” and putting on a Mickey and Judy show.
The whole film came together in a matter of weeks in 1997 and there's a delightful sense of irreverence everywhere you look.
Welcome to the world of political operatives – spin doctors who specialize in molding public opinion or, at the very least, making the electorate look the other way.
The best of the best is Conrad Brean (De Niro), who knows there is big trouble when he's called out of retirement and ushered into the ultra-secure bowels of the White House. There he gets the bad news from a flustered presidential aide (Anne Heche).
The prez has had a sexual encounter with a visitor to the White House. The subject of this executive amore was a pubescent girl who was treated to a tryst in a secret room off the Oval Office. (Wag the Dog was made at the height of Lewinskygate.)
Now word has leaked out and the president’s re-election campaign is facing a disaster. What can Conrad do to turn this fiasco into a silk purse?
“I'm working on it,” he responds, employing his trademark mantra. What's needed is a diversionary tactic, and the only thing more diverting than sex is violence. Conrad proposes a war, preferably with a country nobody knows about. Albania will do just fine.
Producing a war without actual casualties, though, will require the participation of the Dream Factory. We’re talking Hollywood.
Conrad recruits big-time producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), who regularly stages the Oscar telecast but hasn't an Oscar of his own.
Motss (the "t" is silent) is a bathrobe-clad egomaniac in tinted glasses who relishes the idea of actually producing a war. Before long he’s formed a team to write, mount, and even score the nonexistent conflict with Albania. The only drawback is that he won't be able to claim credit for the biggest production of his career.
It occurs to no one in the supremely cynical Wag the Dog that one ought not to support a politician who preys on little girls – and, in fact, we never see the president. These hardened pros devote their efforts entirely to minimizing political damage.
The “war” with Albania looks quite convincing, thanks to an out-of-work actress (Kirsten Dunst) who dons a babushka and stumbles through computer-generated ruins for her role as a refugee. (When she asks Conrad if she can list this “news footage” on her resume he replies, with complete sincerity, “If you do, we'll have to kill you.”)
A stoned country balladeer (Willie Nelson) shows up to write a theme song for the war, complaining that almost nothing rhymes with “Albania.” Later he pens a “vintage” country blues tune called “Old Shoe,” which purportedly is the nickname of a U.S. soldier accidentally left behind after a mission to Albania. Of course, there was no such mission.
This song is surreptitiously placed in the Library of Congress where it is “discovered” by an enterprising reporter, who turns it into a national hit. Before long half the trees in America are decorated with old shoes as an anxious nation awaits the return of the much-publicized (and fictional) MIA.
The moral of all this? Mainly that show biz and politics have become one and the same. Content is irrelevant; all that matters is if you can divert the audience long enough to collect their money (or their votes).
The downside of Wag the Dog is that it's basically a one-joke movie. That goes as well for the people who populate it; once you get a lock on these guys, forget about discovering anything new. We're not talking lots of character development.
The key to the whole thing is Hoffman’s Motss. The performance is a dead-on imitation of real-life Hollywood producer Robert Evans, but even if you haven’t been let in on that insider joke, one must be amused by Hoffman's quirky, megalomaniacal creation.
Other films in the series “Everything is Politics”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- October 6: Wag the Dog (1997) Rated R
- October 13: The Candidate (1972) Rated PG
- October 20: Election (1999) Rated R
- October 27: Dave (1993) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.