As the election season comes to a close, it would seem to be a perfect time to delve into the vault of political movies. A particular film still has some relevance today. In a political climate heavily damaged by the tabloid-esque coverage of politics by the mainstream media, reviewing a film that takes on the subject of spinning news and the influence the media plays in the election cycle would seem appropriate. “Wag the Dog” (1997) fits that description.
In the days leading up to the election, the sitting president, up for reelection, finds himself in the midst of a sex scandal. One of the president’s close advisors, Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) hires Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a professional spin doctor, to help ensure the president wins reelection. They decide to fabricate a war with Albania, and Brean recruits Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to bring things to life. As things progress, the team of spinsters are forced to continue building onto their story and the lies they have perpetuated.
The screenplay, written by Hilary Henkin, is particularly interesting. Although some of the content is quite farfetched, the dialogue is witty and on point in its satire. It isn’t the easiest task to take something often serious such as politics and be able to create humor without making it entirely a farce. But that is exactly what Henkin does with “Wag the Dog.” At times the subject matter is quite dark, but that becomes the genius of the screenplay. It is still very much a comedy.
The introduction of Motss is one of the more memorable scenes in the film, and much of that is credited to the work of Henkin. However, Hoffman’s portrayal is quite well done in this scene as well. Several special performances are noticeable throughout the entirety of this film, but Hoffman’s stands above them all. Dialogue aside, Hoffman’s ability to ride the line between genius and crazy makes the character interesting. It is never certain what he is going to suggest next, and when he does suggest something, it leaves the audience wondering if it could possibly work. Only Hoffman could bring that magic to the role.
Another noteworthy aspect of the film is the music. Much of it is part of the storyline. Music artist, Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson), is drafted to write songs to be used as a means of support for the president. Nelson, a known political activist, seems in his element here, as he performs Americana style political tunes. “Good Old Shoe” sticks out as one of the more prominent songs in the film, as it plays a critical role in furthering the plot.
What makes “Wag the Dog” worth watching is its social commentary. In 2016, the media plays such a large role in the way citizens digest information. Whether for better or worse, many of the decisions voters make is based upon what they see on their television. In “Wag the Dog,” which was released during a time when the internet was just gaining steam, a comment is made on how easy it is to change the dialogue via mass media. That was almost 20 years ago, it is anyone’s guess how much more intense that influence might be today.
The film asks a question of whether the media is damaging to United States’ elections. And the film answers that question when Brean asks Ames, “What did television ever do to you?” She responds, “It destroys the electoral process.”
Even for a film full of laughs, there is a sense of sadness as the credits roll. Viewers are forced to ask whether voters are just pawns in a much larger game, or if there is a sense of whether the truth will ever be delivered. In the end, “Wag the Dog” successfully provokes while still not taking itself too seriously.
Even long after viewing the film, viewers are left contemplating the film’s humorous, but perplexing opening thought: “Why does the dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.” The question remains, which wags which?