Wag the Dog

When the President of the United States is caught with his pants down and charged with sexual misconduct, it’s up to his spin doctors to change public perception. Sound familiar? “Wag the Dog,” loosely structured from Larry Beinhart’s novel “American Hero,” is a darkly comic film that had the good fortune of being released when real life events in the Oval Office seemed to mirror events on the screen.


Working from a tightly wound screenplay by David Mamet (with some assist from Hilary Henkin), director Barry Levinson has created a wicked little fable that’s so plausible it’s scary. wagthedogWhen the President is accused of sexual misconduct involving a “Firefly Girl” just weeks before election, it falls upon his elite Corp of spin doctors to deflect the heat. Enter Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a master of control, and White House press liaison Winifred Ames (Anne Heche). Their solution? Fake a war with a small, out-of- the-way country so that the nation has something else to worry about. In order to accomplish their task, Brean and Ames recruit Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), who is pleased to have the opportunity to save the day and fool the populace.

The three decide to hold their fake war in Albania, and create realistic war footage in a studio to feed to the broadcast news stations. They hire a tune smith (Willie Nelson) to come up with an anthem, and then create a hero when the war is over. All of this is presented so matter-of-fact that you’re left with the sneaking suspicion that it could really happen. Levinson shot “Wag the Dog” in 29 days, and the film is a testament to what Hollywood can accomplish when it focuses more on character and plot rather than special effects and explosions.

The cast couldn’t be better, especially Hoffman, who finds great joy in his assignment. Woody Harrelson is hilarious as Sgt. William Schuman, the unwitting soldier the team picks to be their hero. Razor sharp dialogue, exceptional performances and tight direction made “Wag the Dog” one of the top ten films of 1997.

COMPLETE CHECK-UP

VISION: [ x ] EXCELLENT [ ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.

There’s no conspiracy here. Everything is out in the open. Excellent digital transfer in both pan and scan and widescreen (1.85:1). No flaws visible, so whoever mastered this Platinum Series title for New Line was a pretty good spin doctor. Levinson and director of cinematography Robert Richardson purposely went for muted tones, all of which look great here. The flesh tones are realistic and healthy. Since “Wag the Dog” is a small character piece, widescreen isn’t necessary to fully enjoy the film. Those with smaller televisions will appreciate the pan and scan side.

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Except for the occasional passage of Mark Knopfler’s score or some crowd commotion, “Wag the Dog” is dialogue driven. The 5.1 Digital Dolby Surround track (in both English and French) sounds great when it’s utilized, but most of the signal comes from the front speakers. The dialogue is crisp.

ORAL: [ ] EXCELLENT [ x ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.

Subtitles in English and French, courtesy of the National Captioning Institute.

COORDINATION: [ x ] EXCELLENT [ ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.

This Platinum Line Series DVD proves you can teach and old dog new tricks. New Line has piled on the extras, including a great running audio commentary track by director Levinson and actor Hoffman. Like the commentary track on “Sphere,” it’s immediately apparent that Levinson was taped while watching the film, while Hoffman was recorded elsewhere. However, Hoffman’s recollections are much more vivid and personal, and not nearly as distant as they were in “Sphere,” which was also a Barry Levinson film. When “Wag the Dog” was released, it was met with controversy. Writer David Mamet was furious that he had to share credit with original screenwriter Hilary Henkin. Director Levinson and Mamet claimed that they had completely rewritten Henkin’s script, and that Mamet deserved sole credit. This issue is addressed by Levinson, who also sheepishly admits that he and co-star Craig T. Nelson used to do comedy improvisation together back in the middle 60’s. The other controversy surrounding the film was that Hoffman was imitating producer Robert Evans, who he sincerely disliked. On the audio track, Hoffman claims that he was doing his father Harry, but then goes on to express his extreme disdain for producers (he calls them “suits”). One look at Hoffman in the film and you know that Evans is somewhere in the mix. Even funnier, the documentary “From Washington to Hollywood and Back” features director John Frankenheimer being interviewed in his office, flanked by a poster from “Black Sunday.” Most of the poster is out of the camera’s frame, but producer Robert Evans’ name is clearly visible. The documentary takes a look at how the media has changed politics, and features interviews with Levinson, producer Jane Rosenthal, Tom Brokaw, former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, and documentary film maker’s Chris Hegadus and D.A. Pennebaker (“The War Room”). There’s an essay called “The Line Between Truth and Fiction,” and a short bit called “Macy on Mamet,” in which actor William H. Macy discusses his relationship with writer Mamet. The scene selection menu also gives you little tastes of Mark Knopfler’s score. There’s the customary animated menus, cast and crew bios, and theatrical trailers. An excellent presentation of an excellent film.

PROGNOSIS: [ x ] EXCELLENT [ ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.

Great film. Great transfer. Great price. So what are you waiting for?

VITALS: $24.95/Rated R/96 Min./Color/22 Chapter Stops/Snapcase/#N4658

ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen

PATIENT: WAG THE DOG

BIRTH DATE: 1997

HMO: New Line Home Video



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