Sunday, July 26, 2009
Wag the Dog (1997)
By Eric Jessen 7/25/09
Wag the Dog is at its finest rousing, hilarious satire. I laughed and laughed: smart, funny, and SO true (only a little exaggerated). But after the first few reels the story stalled, the arc became clear and predictable, and the gag became redundant. The laughs faded, turned to chuckles and then only to a half smile. In its waning moments it descended into anarchist farce, mimicking Network (1976) in sardonic lawlessness and an untimely final death but lacking its poetic qualities. Instead forcing the ending arbitrarily - a rotten cherry on top - showing only desperation to seem provocative.
The premise is spectacular. This is the “you had me at hello” of set ups. Our story begins in a war-room for white house PR gurus. The President is in the midst of a sex scandal only a week before election day. His poll numbers are plummeting, so his PR spin-master, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is forced to take drastic measures and stage a fake, unnecessary war to distract and manipulate the naive voters. Conrad employs friend and Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to organize the show. The rest of the movie consists mainly of a series of funny, sometimes even plausible, obstacles for Brean and Motss to subvert. To them Politics is only a game. They snicker at voting and make a mockery of the Democratic process. That's their job. But settle down, it's all in good fun.
The script is in many ways tight, packed with punchy jokes, smart situational humor, satire that walks a fine line of whimsical but not stupid, biting but not angry, and best of all has funny acting: De Niro looks intelligent enough to be the spin master (especially with his beard); Anne Heche does her best to be a strong, level headed and not wimpy assistant; Dennis Leary works as a pitch man, though I wish he would have let out more of his fire; and Dustin Hoffman is fantastic as the producer. He's shrewd but with a cockeyed optimism that, no matter what happens, he can make bologna into filet.
Hoffman is filet but why is Wag the Dog bologna? This movie has so much quality and yet fails. I think it's because it attempts to perform an impossible balancing act. It has a dominant, convincing unrelenting “cynical side”. The ultimate recipients of this movie's jest are common people, the masses, the voters. Brean and Motss create a fake war on the assumption that people are stupid, gullible, blindly sentimental, overly patriotic, and most important incredibly easily distracted. But Wag the Dog falls apart, loses its laughs, becomes even somewhat tiring because it doesn't have an equal or even existent “human side.” The ordinary people, dumb enough to believe in a war or a hero, never get a say. None of our funny characters like Brean or Motss transcend their comedy. They only exist for our amusement and to act out their cynicism. They are indifferent to other people. The ending only reinforces this point: Brean with a stone face and cold blood orders his friend's death. This movie, though with wit and intelligence, only scratches the surface of its topic. It doesn't venture into the cause and effect. It shies from real people, non-caricatures, because then things are less complicated.
Wag the Dog is in the end a missed opportunity. But let's not dwell on what could have been. I'll remember that at least for the first hour, I laughed and laughed.