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Review: Wag the Dog (1997)

Directed by: Barry Levinson | 97 minutes | | Actors: Robert DeNiro, , , , , , , , , Suzie Plakson, , , , ,

Why does a dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than its tail. Otherwise, the tail would wag the dog. Not everyone will immediately know what it is about when reading this riddle. But fill in “government” for “dog” and “media and people” for “tail” and suddenly something completely different. It is the motto of director Barry Levinson’s 1997 political satire “Wag the Dog”. The story of the film came terribly close to reality, because it was precisely during that period that US President Bill Clinton was accused of sexual harassment by a certain Monica Lewinsky. To divert attention, Clinton threatened to rekindle the old Iraq issue. And earlier inexplicable actions, such as Ronald Reagan’s invasion of the insignificant Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, are said to have merely aimed to mislead the people.

In “Wag the Dog”, the US president is on the of his possible re-election. In an unguarded moment, however, he assaults a minor girl scout in his Oval Office. To make sure that it doesn’t leak out, spider doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is called in for help. Under the motto “change the story, change the lead” he invents a war with Albania. Why precisely that country? Because it has a sinister name and no American knows how to locate it … To bring this fictional war as convincingly as possible, the arrived Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) is called in. He supplies the news channels with lifelike – but in reality manipulated – images and Willie Nelson writes a real propaganda song to stir up patriotism. Of course, a war hero is also called in. In reality, this is a prisoner causing trouble. The media takes over everything from each other indiscriminately, making it difficult not to believe that there is war.

More than 40 years ago, Stanley Kubrick reduced in “Dr. Strangelove’s Cold War to a fit of madness. In 1992 unraveled the political election circus with “Bob Roberts” and in 1998 was seen as Bill Clinton himself in the movie “Primary Colors”. The satire finds a particularly rewarding subject in American politics, which is probably even more crazy than a film can handle. “Wag the Dog” can mainly be seen as a confirmation of the dubious patriotic nature of the Americans. Politics is entertainment and Hollywood excels at breast beating. Barry Levinson’s film (“Rain Man” and the recent, also political “Man of the Year”) did not lag behind, as is usually the case with films, but was extremely topical and also self-relativating. A strong asset of “Wag the Dog”, for which David Mamet (“The Verdict”, “Glengarry Glen Ross”) and Hilary Henkin wrote the script, which were nominated for an Oscar. They based themselves on the book “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart.

The main roles in the film are played by not the least actors. Robert De Niro is convincing as Conrad Brean, yet lacks the enthusiasm he had in his best films (“Raging Bull”, “Mean Streets”). Dustin Hoffman, on the other hand, is excellent as the vain and self-centered film producer who yearns for recognition. He received his seventh Oscar nomination for this (he won twice). There are supporting roles by Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy, Kirsten Dunst and Willie Nelson. So a cast to be proud of. Unfortunately, they cannot prevent the film from dropping to the level of a farce halfway through, after a strong start with hilarious discoveries and vicious dialogues. Moreover, the denouement is too weak to make an indelible impression. “Wag the Dog” could have been an unforgettable biting satire, but unfortunately it derails a lot in the last part. The fact that the film has remained viewable is due to the surplus of talent, both in front and behind the cameras.

Wag the Dog has a compelling premise and a great start. Unfortunately, the film does not manage to maintain that level all the time. And that despite the great cast. Nevertheless, the film offers a nice glimpse into the way in which rulers manipulate the image of the masses through the media. It makes you think. Because, what percentage of the images we see on the news every day is actually real?

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