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(1997) (Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman) (R)

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Comedy: A political spin doctor tries to save the President's reelection chances by inventing a fictitious war that will divert the nation's attention away from a sex scandal.
Two weeks before his reelection bid, the President (MICHAEL BELSON) is in trouble. Accused by a teenage girl of sexual misconduct, the White House is nervous that this will blow out of proportion and ruin his chances of winning, particularly when his opponent, Senator Neal (CRAIG T. NELSON), gets wind of the scandal.

Thus, Conrad Brean (ROBERT De NIRO), a mysterious political spin doctor, is brought in to create a diversion. He suggests staging a fictitious war against Albania and White House aide Winifred Ames (ANNE HECHE), with no better alternative, sets the plan into motion. They then go and meet with Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (DUSTIN HOFFMAN), who agrees to help create the "war," simply for the fun of helming such an elaborate production.

Knowing full well that TV is the most manipulative force they have, the three set out to start the story and let the press unknowingly step in and take their plan from there. Along the way they get help from songwriter Johnny Green (WILLIE NELSON), and consultants Fad King (DENIS LEARY) and Liz Butsky (ANDREA MARTIN), but run into problems in the form of CIA agent, Mr. Young (WILLIAM H. MACY) who's discovered their plan.

Although they occasionally run into setbacks, Brean and Motss continually spin the story around in their favor, and at one point create a "war hero" in the form of Sgt. William Schumann (WOODY HARRELSON), who turns out to be a drugged psychotic soldier who's been in the stockade for years. As the days to the election count down and Senator Neal and others try to derail their plans, the trio does everything in their power to make sure the President is reelected.

Only if they're fans of someone in the cast or of political satire films.
For language.
  • ROBERT De NIRO plays a mysterious spin doctor who sets up the elaborate lie, curses some, and gives the order to have someone "taken care of" (killed).
  • DUSTIN HOFFMAN plays a conceited Hollywood producer who helps generate the lie. He curses some and we briefly get a hint that he used heavy drugs in the past.
  • ANNE HECHE plays a White House aide who goes along with the ruse and curses and smokes a few times.


    OUR TAKE: 8.5 out of 10
    In 1959, a clever little satirical film came along that dealt with a small, desperate and utterly fictitious country ("Grand Fenwick") that declared war on the United States knowing full well that it would lose, but reap the benefits of postwar rehabilitation. Starring at the time an unknown Peter Sellers, "The Mouse That Roared" went on to be a big hit.

    Now nearly forty years later, another staged war is needed not to save a country, but a presidency, and we get it in the form of "Wag the Dog." A clever, hilarious, and occasional insider's look at the relationship between Washington politics and Hollywood entertainment, this film should also be a big hit (at least among those Washington and L.A. insiders). To make sure we know what kind of ride we're in for (and to explain the title), the film opens with the following statement: "Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog."

    That perfectly describes what's become an intricately interwoven political/entertainment relationship. And rarely has there been a movie as effective as this one in skewering both. Oscar winning director Barry Levinson ("Rainman," and also nominated for "Bugsy"), and writers Hilary Henkin and David Mamet (working from Larry Beinhart's novel, "American Hero") have concocted an amusing, sharply written satire that's quite simply one of the best films of the year.

    Although it often has a documentary feel that gives it something of a rushed look, that only adds to the overall effect the film's trying to present. Shot in an amazingly short two week period, the film's rushed look further emphasizes the "fly by the seat of your pants" work that the spin doctors perform on their story. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Richardson ("J.F.K.") often uses a handheld camera to create that documentary feel. His and Levinson's efforts are welcomed as they give the picture a raw feel that's contrasts Levinson's more recent, highly polished works. To cap off the feature, they've thrown in Mark Knopfler's (of the group Dire Straits) score that has an aura of Americana whimsey as does an assortment of other music/songs heard throughout the film.

    The polished part of the movie comes in the form of the impressive cast members who are perfectly placed in their respective roles. Two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro ("The Godfather, Part II," and "Raging Bull" out of six nominations) is a delight as the mysterious political spin doctor. Audiences always love characters who are in control, and there's nearly no one better to assume that role than De Niro. While he plays one of his more subdued characters (compared to his often intense performances) and we never know much about his character, we don't really need to. He's the enigmatic hired gun who's ridden into town to take care of a problem and who will disappear into the sunset when the job's done.

    Of course such a character always needs a partner, and here we get Dustin Hoffman. Also a winner of two Oscars out of six nominations ("Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Rainman"), this is Hoffman's best role in a long time. Although he finally breaks down near the end and delivers his now trademark intense, impassioned speech, for the most part he plays against what's become his normal characterizations. As the unflustered Hollywood producer, he's hilarious to watch as he spouts off reasons why their team's setbacks are nothing compared with what he's been through in years of producing films.

    He tells the others that they should have seen the time he was shooting "The Four Men of the Apocalypse" and three of the four men died two weeks before wrapping, or in another film where four months into the film he found out he didn't have the rights to the material. To him, CIA intervention or the President's opponent declaring that their made up war is over, is nothing but a minor setback. After all, politics and war are nothing more than entertainment and who better to control that than a Hollywood producer. Hoffman creates a character who's so into what he does, that like De Niro's confident creation, we as the audience just can't get enough of him.

    The rest of the cast is also impressive, ranging from Anne Heche ("Volcano") in a flustered role, to Denis Leary ("The Ref"), Woody Harrelson ("Natural Born Killers"), and William H. Macy ("Fargo") in supporting performances. It's Harrelson, however, who nearly steals the show as a wacked out, heavily medicated, and psychotic military prisoner. If you can imagine a dumber, but whacked out version of his character Woody from TV's "Cheers," you'll kind of get the picture.

    The film is filled with so many funny moments, speeches, and bits of satire that I possibly couldn't list all of them, and many wouldn't seem funny taken out of context. Seen and heard during the movie, however, and they're not only often knee slapping funny, but also quite clever. Such moments include a "We Are the World" spoof, several funny scenes with Willie Nelson penning some hilarious campaign type songs, and a witty bit where holes have been torn in a P.O.W.'s shirt that are really morse code symbols (a clever twist on the real life P.O.W. who blinked morse code with his eyes years ago). There's also a fun, drum driven military ballad ("The Men of the 3-0-3") and of course some insultingly inane campaign commercials that infuriate Hoffman's character (he calls them "the work of amateurs").

    An interesting point is that beyond a few glimpses (mainly of the back of his head), very little is seen of the President himself. Of course that's because it's the story and not the man that's important. The spin doctors could care less about the President. For Conrad, it's about creating a successful diversion, while Stanley simply delights in producing an "epic." What make the movie so much fun is seeing these two characters who are so in control of their actions and their resulting achievements. Although they run into obstacle after obstacle, they continue on. Much like audiences enjoy watching Bruce Willis get through his "Die Hard" predicaments, De Niro and Hoffman create such confident and memorable characters that you can't help but root for them and certainly can't take your eyes off them. When De Niro outwits and talks down a CIA agent who's on to their ploy, the results are nothing less than outstanding.

    Nearly everything about this film is perfect, including a short running time (around 1:45 with credits) that prevents the satire from becoming stale or running out of steam. Featuring impressive performances, sharp direction, and wittily barbed writing, this is easily the best satire to come down the pike in years. The only bad thing about it is that it may just be closer to the truth about politics than many people would like to believe. If you're in the mood for some clever and quite amusing satire, make sure you see this film. We give "Wag the Dog" an 8.5 out of 10.

    With 25 "f" words and an assortment of others, profanity earns this film its R rating. Beyond that, the obvious and elaborate series of lies told throughout the film, and some implied violence (heard, but not seen), the rest of the film is rather void of major objectionable material. Although few kids will want to see this film, you should read through the material if you or someone else in your family does want to see it.

  • Winifred has what appears to be a little bottle of liquor in front of her on a plane.
  • Stanley, Fad, and others have wine or champagne.
  • Conrad, Stanley, and Winifred celebrate with wine.
  • Conrad and Winifred have drinks in a bar.
  • Johnny makes a comment that he was on his way "to get drunk."
  • Some jokes are made about Stanley being "coked up" in the past (nothing's seen) or his actresses being on a variety of drugs also in the past (not seen).
  • Schumann is on some sort of heavy, anti-psychotic medication.
  • Some people drink in a bar.
  • None.
  • There are reports that the President did something sexual to a teenage "firefly" girl, but we don't know what that is or see anything.
  • All of the main characters participate in a series of elaborate lies to cover the above.
  • Several characters refer to women as "broads" or "old broads."
  • Schumann reportedly raped a nun years ago (not seen) and follows a young woman into a house (supposedly to rape her as well but we don't see anything).
  • Schumann (known to be a rapist) follows a young woman into a house and we hear her scream, but don't see anything.
  • Shotgun: Used by a man to shoot and kill another man (off screen we only hear the gunshots).
  • Rifles: Fired by an honor guard during a twenty-one-gun salute.
  • Phrases: "Screw up," "Geez," "Broad" and "Old broad" (for women), "Pain in the ass," "Sh*thead," "Laid" (sexual), "D*ckhead," "Limp d*ck," "Pansy," "Nuts" (crazy), and "Pissed."
  • All of the main characters participate in a series of elaborate lies.
  • Conrad makes the gesture for male masturbation (about a person he's talking to on the phone).
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 25 "f" words (2 used sexually with an additional one seen on a T-shirt), 14 "s" words, 2 slang terms using male genitals (the "d" word), 10 hells, 2 asses, 2 S.O.B.'s, 1 damn, and 6 uses of "Oh my God," 3 uses of "Oh God," and 1 use each of "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," "G-damn," "My God," and "God" as exclamations.
  • There are reports that the President did something sexual to a teenage "firefly" girl, but we don't know what that is or see anything.
  • There's a very brief glimpse of the now famous footage showing a naked Vietnamese girl running down a street during the Vietnam War.
  • We see a female White House aide in bed with a man (implying they had sex).
  • We see just the lower part of a young woman's bare butt as she bends over and as Schumann stares at her.
  • Conrad tells Stanley that among the many things he can get for helping them (money, etc...), one is that "...you can get laid whenever you want."
  • Winifred smokes several times.
  • Actor James Belushi (playing himself), holds an unlit cigar.
  • Other background characters occasionally smoke.
  • None.
  • The relationship between politics and the media.
  • Some jokes are made about not voting (making it look like it's cool not to) and briefly about a person being shot.
  • We hear that Schumann was sent to prison for raping a nun (not seen).
  • We hear gunshots as a man shoots another man twice with a shotgun (not seen and played for laughs).
  • It's implied that another man's heart attack was actually a murder (not seen).

  • Reviewed December 29, 1997

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