Matinee Price with your brain and some popcorn
Wag the Dog is an interesting, wry, Bob Robertsian commentary on the power of the media and politics. It is not a rollicking comedy, as the previews would lead you to believe, but a thoughtful one, and it is not a Robert De Niro ego party. It is a bit of a Dustin Hoffman ego party (what isn’t?) but it works for his Hollywood producer character. Anne Heche is not given much to do, sadly, but Denis Leary comes through with some really dead on bits as the Fad King. Also: Adriene Martin, Woody Harrelson, Kirsten Dunst, William H. Macy, and Craig T. Nelson. And Willie!
The camera work was weird, pseudodocumentarian quick cuts and zooms, kind of NYPD Blue meets NOVA, but it was not staged as a documentary. It’s a shame, because if it had been, we the audience would have felt in on the conspiracy and more involved in the story. As it was, these people are so good at their job that for a goodly portion of the movie, they encounter no real obstacles, and we just sit back and watch the superlinear story unfold. It is much colder than a comedy should be because of all this distance, but it is still very interesting and clever and quite a commentary on our society as a whole. Also a neat pastiche of pop culture/media infiltration imagery.
To sum up: The president is accused of a sexual indiscretion 2 weeks before the election and his crack team of spin doctors concoct a little skirmish to distract and inspire the people to vote for the incumbent instead of his blatantly mudslinging opponent.
References are made to how Desert Storm was presented to the public and how this strategy for this president compares. I would be very interested in speaking to any Desert Storm vets (the one I know won’t return my calls!) to see how they felt about this analogy being drawn. I admit freely that my 21 year old self perceived the 5 week conflict to be akin to a big football game – lots of lights and logos and not a lot of coverage or even actual motivation for the fighting, and suddenly over. I know that is not the whole story, but that is the media distillation as experienced by me. In Wag the Dog, the war they concoct is entirely fictional, but the whole US mobilized behind it.
Bonus touches: The pop song inspirational anthems, the hero’s rescue mission and the falsification of a 1930’s blues hit ( I have said too much but it’s so perfect!), the whole weird crazy people getting hopped up about an enemy they can’t even find on a map and never worried about. It’s a fascinating and amusing satire but don’t expect to chortle your guts out. Just feel proud that you Get It and that you are so metafictionally aware that you would never fall for such a cheap ruse.
MPAA Rating R for language
Release date 1/9/98
Time in minutes 97
Director Barry Levinson
Studio New Line