(Quick aside before review and I promise it’s not talking about me being on a hot streak. Though I still am. I think this might be the first Robert De Niro movie I’ve reviewed. We’re nearing the 300 movie mark here and I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been in a single film so far. That seems crazy to me. Glad to finally bring him around)
Usually the role of accidentally forecasting the future is in the hands of science fiction. Go back and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey where people are teleconferencing with video. Boom, you have a 1960s idea of what would ultimately become Skype. In 1902’s A Trip to the Moon by legendary French innovator George Melies, he predicted space flight and a lunar landing 60 years before it would happen. I could go on all day. Generally, you don’t see that happen in satire. Well, we can thank David Mamet and Barry Levinson for breaking that rule with their ground-breaking 1997 political satire, Wag the Dog, which is now an eerie presage to the many events to come after the film was made. Christine O’Donnel might not be a witch (sorry that meme never got old to me), but someone needs to see if screenwriter David Mamet has an honest-to-god magic crystal ball lying around.
When the unseen President of the United States is caught in a sex scandal involving an underage Firefly Girl (read: Girl Scout), professional spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is brought in to contain the situation. With the help of White House Liaison Ames (Cedar Rapids‘ Anne Heche) and Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman), they construct a fake war with Albania to keep the media from paying attention the President’s real sexual misconduct. Gathering some of the best (and ultimately slimiest) minds that Hollywood has to offer, the spin team comes up with reasons why we would go to war with Albania (a suitcase nuke at the Canadian border), haunting and fake images of the civilians punished by Albanian terrorism, and even phony stories of a war hero trapped behind enemy lines hoping to last the two weeks til election day without anyone discovering their fraud.
I really can’t imagine any scenario where Bill Clinton finds this film even slightly amusing. Although I don’t think we went into the military situation in Kosovo to distract from the Monica Lewinski sex scandal and impeachment hearings, a lot of Republicans thought that was the case. How many times did liberals like myself think that President Bush was faking imagined terrorist threats to distract from other, more important issues? The answer is all of the damn time especially when he would raise the terrorist threat levels for seemingly arbitrary reasons. I’m not sure if it’s as easy to trick the media as this film makes it out to be, but it’s a point of fact that people in power will exploit the ignorance and fear of the masses to keep themselves in office and distract from bigger issues. Also, the film managed to completely define what war has looked like in the 21st century with a terrifying foresight.
When a film has Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman as its leads, you have to know that magic is gonna happen. It won’t rank as one of the great roles of either actor’s career, but they were superb as always. De Niro turns Conrad Brean into a menacing creature that can smile as he cooks up the tiny (but most important) details of a fake war with Albania while flashing a colder smile as he threatens to kill a teenage girl if she ever tells anyone about the fake video she just shot. Dustin Hoffman is better as the smooth and fast-talking Stanley Motts. I don’t want to belittle the performance by saying this (even though it’s true), but it’s the sort of Hoffman role you expect where he bursts with nervous energy and his method skittishness. Yet, his gung-ho belief in selling America this fake war is the tie that holds the film together as is his ultimate disappointment when he realizes no one can ever know he made this all happen.
I’m not sure how much credit to give to Barry Levinson here and how much to give to screenwriter David Mamet. The film flows with the rhythm of a great Aaron Sorkin script or a Robert Altman film thanks to a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue so my money’s on Mamet. Although where Sorkin liked to show politics at its most idealistic and hopeful (I contend that he is Hollywood’s last great Romantic), this film certainly falls on the bitter and cynical end of the spectrum and leaves you wondering if anything you hear about from our nation’s leaders is true? I’m not quite as skeptical as Mamet apparently is, but the film’s ability to make you think and laugh at the same time is certainly commendable.
I’ve got a headache and an exam tomorrow (my second of three exams this week. Welcome back to college Don) so I’ll keep this short. If you like satire and politics, this film is as biting as they come and scarily predicted where the world would be heading over the next 15 years. Anne Heche is reminding me of why I’ve grown to love her body of work so much these last couple of years, and Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are simply two of the greatest actors of all time. With a spot on and quotable script, Wag the Dog is the full package although those without a stomach for the seedier side of American politics may not be able to handle the film. This joins The American President and Primary Colors as one of the great political films of the 90s.
Final Score: B+