Wag The Dog

Wag The Dog (1997)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Theatrical Trailer

"Wag The Dog", a hysterical political satire, no matter how strangely fictional it may seem, has been outdone by the real events surrounding the American presidency these days. If nothing else, it demonstrates writer Larry Beinhart’s keen grasp on the pulse of the times. His novel "American Hero" is adapted and translated to film, a film that is now a Platinum Series DVD release from New Line Home Video. The President of the United States has a serious problem on his hands. Less than two weeks before the election, he is caught in a news-breaking sex scandal. Whether the allegations are factual or just a clever maneuver of his opponents doesn’t matter, not when his second term is at stake. The White House’s spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) immediately picks up the ball and looks for ways out of the dilemma, trying to distract attention from the scandal. He needs something earth shattering to happen, something bigger than this dangerous escapade, something like… a war!

Brean seeks out Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) for help and together they further develop the idea of a staged war. They flesh out plans for a phony conflict with Albania, creating fake film coverage from the battlefield and producing other artifacts which they leak to eager, uncritical newscasters around the country. Immediately, attention is diverted from the sex scandal to the more important matter, and while they hope no one discovers the truth before election day, the president’s competitor does and publicly declares that there is no war anywhere in sight, destroying Brean’s and Motss’ plans.

Caught by his own pride, Motss immediately swells to top form and stages an even bigger event to mislead the masses. With his professional skills as a filmmaker he creates one hoax after another, but fights a losing battle in this desperate race against time and the truth.

Director Barry Levinson staged this vicious satire without knowing it would become reality only weeks after the film’s release. Today it seems we have gone through all the tricks of a White House spinmaster, portrayed much like the scenario presented in "Wag The Dog". The numerous sexual harassment charges against the President and an obscure bombing of the American embassy in South Africa only days before the President’s appearance at the court start to make one wonder. The film shows how desperately eager politicians are for power, and how very easy people are to mislead, all the while maintaining a caustic, humorous mood. It will also show you how thin the air in political circles can become from one day to another and how remorselessly political interests take priority over human lives.

Watching "Wag The Dog" also made me once again ponder the power of sensation-loving newscasts in a world where the disappearance of somebody’s pants from the domestic clothesline have become more important than real political situations or other incidents around the world. Here in the US, news reporting has become a hoax in itself, a travesty that systematically limits peoples’ scope and knowledge. It is a first-rate public stultification, making highly-acclaimed celebrity demagogues out of every single news anchor. I do not believe in conspiracy theories, however, and am of the firm conviction that this glorification is a result of our own doing, a society that has sadly lost its ethics and morals somewhere along the line. The film clearly observes this behavior and translates it into the ultimate weapon in the hands of the White House spin doctors. Over the years, they have learned to utilize and direct the power of the media, and within the context of this film, we see them unleash this beast. Believe me, you will look at your newscast differently after having watched this film, no matter whether the events portrayed in this movie actually have one foot in reality or not. Even if it should happen to be a completely fictional story that only incidentally came true, it will plant some doubt in your mind.

"Wag The Dog" is perfectly cast with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman; both lend necessary gravity and believability to the story. They are both extremely reputable actors with a wide variety of skills and talents, and in "Wag The Dog", they finally have the chance to show off their comedic skills once again. Unfortunately Brean’s assistant is not quite as well cast it’s a rather obnoxious performance from Anne Heche, easily amortized with a really funny cameo appearance by country music legend Willie Nelson.

New Line’s Platinum Series is known for its wealth of bonus materials and "Wag The Dog" is no exception. It contains the movie’s <$16x9,anamorphic> 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen>, as well as the <$PS,pan & scan> version, and an audio <$commentary,commentary track> by director Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman. The highlight is clearly a featurette called "From Washington To Hollywood And Back", including interviews with the filmmakers and many other people involved in the media, film making, and politics. The disc also contains an essay on politics and the media, the film’s theatrical trailer and the obligatory cast & crew biographies. The film is presented in a clean and sharp transfer with lots of detail even in the darkest shadows. As you would expect from such a dedicated release, the transfer is flawless, without <$chroma,chroma noise> or any digital artifacts. The transfer has a very good color fidelity with rich and saturated colors and hues, and naturally rendered fleshtones.

The disc also contains a good <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack in English and French. It creates a nice aural ambience for the film but never makes too much use of the surround field. Mark Knopfler has thrown in an intriguing music score, and although he is probably best known as the virtuoso guitarist and voice of Dire Straits, his trademark sound is held at bay. It clearly proves once again that he is a real composer who is at home in a number of different compositional fields. The disc is <$CC,closed captioned> and also contains French subtitles.

"Wag The Dog" is certainly as unerring, splendid and funny as a political satire can get without taking the risk of being banned for uncovering confidential information. It has an intelligent script that makes the whole story believable, and a story that presents us with very eccentric, tangible characters. The story is a little slow at times, but it’s forgivable here. It is a must-see movie and it comes as a great package from New Line. I highly recommend it. It is a riot… but an exceedingly clever one.