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Wag The Dog

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Official Web site for WAG THE DOG

Wag The Dog isn't a typical Hollywood movie, but neither is it surprising that Hollywood produced such a self-congratulatory movie. In Wag The Dog, director Barry Levinson and writers David Mamet and Hilary Henkin give us a cunningly cynical tale about the powers of Hollywood (and Washington spin doctors) to fool the American public. Only Hollywood could have produced a story where Hollywood filmmakers are capable of virtually anything, with the public completely at their mercy.

Wag The Dog gives us Robert DeNiro as a presidential advisor who attempts to resurrect the President's flagging re-election hopes. It seems the President had a sexual encounter--in the Oval Office, no less--with a teenage girl during a routine White House tour, and now the story is about to break in The Washington Post. To deflect public interest, DeNiro decides nothing less than a war is required. But who can they go to war against? A real war would require a real enemy, so DeNiro consults a famed Hollywood producer (played by Dustin Hoffman) about staging a war. All they need is a few choice moments on video to pass along to the television networks and a few choice information "leaks" and pesto! The press will gobble up the story--and forget about the President's sexual escapades.

Now I admit that Wag The Dog is frequently fun to watch. Hoffman surrounds himself with art designers, idea men, and technicians, and like a think tank in operation, they make the war come to life. But eventually, as dozens of people become involved in staging the war "pageant" (as DeNiro calls it), the sheer folly of the endeavor starts to sink in. This isn't a movie about the arrogance of Hollywood producers and Washington spin doctors because director Levinson and the other filmmakers completely believe in the superiority of producers and spin doctors. And they completely believe in the ignorance of the press and the American public. As a result, Wag The Dog overflows with cynicism of a particularly nasty variety. I kept hoping that the war would be exposed as a fraud and that DeNiro and Hoffman would get taken down a peg or two, but that never happens.

And I admit that it's frequently fun to watch Hoffman at work. He plays a producer in the P.T. Barnum mold who sees the war as his biggest production. If you can get past the general level of cynicism and overwhelming improbabilities, you might have a lot of fun with this movie. But for me, Wag The Dog runs out of steam at about the halfway point and then drifts aimlessly toward its conclusion. Levinson and company give us a great set up for a movie, but the follow through is lazy.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

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