Wag the Dog has the loose, improvisational rhythm of a group of great musicians jamming at a club, performing at their peaks and surprising each other and themselves. This low-budget studio release does what Heat and Sleepers failed to do: it collects a cast of legends and up-and-comers and lets them have fun working together. The fun is contagious; Wag the Dog feels tossed-off and casual in the best way — not too heavy, not too much riding on it. To over-analyze its satire — or to overrate it — is to suck most of the life out of it.
As a satire, it’s probably the 417th black comedy to break the news that the media is evil and we are being lied to. Wow, stop the presses. What distinguishes Wag the Dog is its systematic approach to media deception. The movie invites us behind closed doors, where we rub elbows with Washington spin doctors and Hollywood illusionists, and they show us how everything works (or, theoretically, could work). Taking this tour, we’re not so much disturbed as oddly flattered, the way we are when Richard III turns and confides in us (and only us) in his asides.
The script, by Hilary Henkin (Romeo Is Bleeding) and legendary playwright David Mamet, shares its basic premise with Michael Moore’s less successful satire Canadian Bacon, where the President declared war on Canada to boost his flagging polls in the wake of weapons-factory shutdowns. Wag the Dog concerns itself much more with the process, the mechanics of manipulation on a grand scale. Here, we go to “war” with Albania (why? why not?) to distract the American public from the President’s recent misadventure with a Firefly Girl days before re-election.
The joke is that there never is a war, only a media mirage (and barrage) that cranks up public hatred of Albania and support for America’s defense of freedom. Presidential advisor Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) calls in the big gun: spin master Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who lays the groundwork for the “war” (deny everything; people expect the government to issue denials) and then calls in his own big gun. Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a fantastically successful movie producer who feels unappreciated by Hollywood, jumps at the chance to help Conrad set the stage for the war: “a little song, a little dance, a pageant.”
Nobody who watched the protracted CNN video game called the Gulf War will find Wag the Dog all that far-fetched. As director Barry Levinson has pointed out, the Gulf War may not have been faked, but it could easily have been. Levinson, whose directorial hand was so heavy and lugubrious in Sleepers, snaps awake here and puts up a piece of jittery, hand-held, on-the-fly filmmaking. He seems relieved to be working so fast, cheap, and in control, as do all of his actors. Hoffman in particular makes Stanley not just a crass producer but a hopped-up ersatz sorcerer getting high on the snap, crackle and pop of his own “creativity.” His satirical performance is sharper for being genuinely affectionate; he loves this tanned weasel, and so do we.
Part of the fun of Wag the Dog is its respect for professionalism: These people may be scoundrels, but they know what they’re doing, they love what they do, and they’re great at it. That extends to everyone involved in the movie, from the cast to the cinematographer (Robert Richardson, taking a breather from Oliver Stone movies) and the composer (Mark Knopfler, whose deadpan riffs perfectly suit the action). Is this a great movie? Not quite; it lacks the pitiless circular snake-eating-its-tail shape of classic satire — the ending is dark but could have been a lot darker. “They’re nice guys, they just haven’t thought it out,” says Conrad of the CIA who meddle in the fake war, and that could describe the screenwriters during the last act. Still, you don’t expect shape and structure from a jam session; you’re there to hear great artists making music. Wag the Dog hits one true note after another.