#266: Wag the Dog (1997)

Following the star-studded vengeance drama Sleepers in 1996, Barry Levinson returned one year later with Hollywood heavyweights Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman for the political spin comedy Wag the Dog. With a brilliant David Mamet-penned script, a $15 million budget and a modest 29-day production schedule, Levinson manages to challenge the weighty issues of media power and the fabrications of politics, whilst never feeling ham-handed or ponderous.

With The United States Presidential Election only 11 days away, The White House gets word of a sex scandal exposé about to break involving a thirteen year old girl scout and the incumbent president. Working around the clock, chief spin guru Conrad Brean (De Niro) determines that the only way the First Gentleman has any chance of winning a second term is by orchestrating a diversion tactic – hiring bigshot movie producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to convince Americans that they are at war with Albania. Why Albania? Well, Jim Belushi aside, Americans don’t no anything about the country, and therefore it is prone to being “shifty and untrustable”.

Whilst De Niro coasts along as the acerbic, mob-like spin man, Dustin Hoffman brings both charm and humour to the proceedings in a deservingly Oscar nominated role as the lavish producer with a penchant for flamboyant silk scarves. The pair make for a magnificent duo, almost too good, with the supporting cast, including CIA Agent William H. Macy, songsmith Willie Nelson agedand political lapdog Anne Heche unsuccessfully sandwiched in-between the Hollywood royalty.

Admittedly, things do get increasingly silly as Wag the Dog heads to it’s climax. Woody Harrelson pops up as an insane prisoner masquerading as a war hero, and a plane crash in the forest leaves everyone annoyed but miraculously unscarred. Turning from political satire to comedy of errors, the movie comes to a close dragging its tail between its legs, yet Hoffman manages to bring us back into the drama when the power-hungry Motss realises he can’t take the credit for his “best ever picture” – the propaganda he helped create.

Worst of all, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler’s instrumental soundtrack is cheesy and cocksure. But, then again, what do you expect from Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler?

With the real life, Romney vs. Obama election imminent, Wag the Dog may be the perfect remedy for all the Yanky doodle, jingoistic pageantry which infiltrates our TV screens. A farcry from political veracity, and not as scathing as In the Loop or The Thick of it, it’s a lighthearted, frivolous take on the dirty relationship between politics and the media.

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