Wag The Dog

Wag The Dog

****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

It's great to see cynicism and satire back where they belong, in the pants of government. The President has been accused of being quick on the zip again, this time in the company of an out-of-town cheerleader, young enough to be... Chelsea Clinton?

Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is called in for damage limitation. His specialty is misinformation, fictitious rumour and knowing where to plant the lies. A fixer, a spin doc, a casual dresser, he is knowledgeable on the machinations of the media. He doesn't look it, he looks like a college music teacher on vacation. He has catch phrases ("Deny, deny, deny" and "I'm working on it") and no scruples. Truth to him is what garlic bread is to blood-sucking middle European aristocrats. Why feed the newshounds steak when lemon meringue pie will do? Easy on the meringue. Too sweet.

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Conrad believes that politics is a joke and war showbiz. If you don't agree, watch how he creates a conflict in Albania, where there isn't one, and turns the nation's eyes away from firm young breasts to strong leadership in a matter of hours. He calls up Hollywood producer, Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman), to orchestrate the fiction and legendary country star, Johnny Green (Willie Nelson) to write the theme tune.

Barry Levinson was excited by the prospect of De Niro and Hoffman together again (after their single scene in Sleepers). The actors' tight skeds prised open a four-week window. Everyone made "Go-go-go" noises and David Mamet was asked to drop the dishes and join the shindig. He took Hilary Henkin's existing script and tweaked it more than somewhat. Anne Heche's part, a White House aide, changed sex. Originally, she was a he. Heche didn't care. Working with Bob and Dustin was some kind of made-in-heaven experience. Or so she said. Or so the maidens at Marketing said she said. Whether Bill inhaled, indulged and aggravated Saddam is beside the point. It was perfect timing. Or was it?

The film does not need to be told that it mirrors life. It knows. The humour is knuckle-to-knuckle, accurately sending up the media's hunger for a story, any story. Let the funny guys in Make Believe give them Elvis-on-the-moon quotes, or Presidential porky pies. Who's taking notes? Conrad suggests the Nobel Peace Prize would be a fitting climax to the incident in Eastern Europe until Heche points out there was no war. Conrad ponders for a moment. "An even greater accomplishment," he says. When working this fast on a Hollywood picture, corners have to be cut. A plane crash, for instance, becomes odd bits of luggage strewn across a field. No time for the boomerang and no cash for Industrial Light & Magic. It's all in the writing and performances, both of which exceed expectation. The plot may stretch probability - was Watergate probable? - but what the heck! Hoffman's having a ball and De Niro's sparking on all cylinders. This is as good as it gets, even without Jack. Satire is in the building, giving a press conference.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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A spin doctor and a film producer concoct a war to draw attention away from a presidential sex scandal.
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Director: Barry Levinson

Writer: Hilary Henkin, David Mamet, based on the book by Larry Beinhart

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, Kirsten Dunst, William H Macy, John Michael Higgins, Suzie Plakson, Woody Harrelson

Year: 1998

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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