Rated R - Running time: 1:35 - Released 12/26/97

Remember all those people in the '70s who believed that the Apollo moon landing was faked? Well, here's a film with that attitude. How, it asks, do we know that we won the Gulf War? That there even was a Gulf War? We simply believed what came flying out of our televisions, courtesy of CNN. The media, that evil, corrupt entity, killer of Lady Diana, has us all over a barrel.

It's presidential election time. Days left, and the approval ratings gap between the incumbent (never seen) and his challenger (Craig T. Nelson) is critically close. Then, catastrophe: a sex scandal involving the president. (Since when has that been a problem?) So how do we, the committee to re-elect, deal with this — how do we draw attention away from the scandal and widen the gap? Why, it's simple: We'll tell the media there's a war against Albania, win it, and make the president the hero.

Conrad Bream (Robert DeNiro) is a spin doctor who is an expert at creating such theatre. "It's not a war," he says when questioned about his radical plan. "It's a pageant." When presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) hires him to make this scandal go away, he goes to famed movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). Between the two of them, and with the help of several of Stanley's friends in the business, a plan is hatched that will save the election — but no one is ever allowed to talk about their participation, including the egotistical Stanley, who continually gripes about the injustice of being an unsung movie producer. "There's no Oscar for producer," he complains.

They hire a songwriter (Willie Nelson) to write patriotic songs, a fashion designer (Andrea Martin) to design dashing uniforms for the special forces, a merchandizing specialist (Denis Leary) to come up with slogans, hats, and various gimmicks, and they create a national anti-Albania movement, complete with an American POW played by Woody Harrelson.

The script for Wag The Dog, written by David Mamet & Hilary Henkin, based on the book American Hero by Larry Beinhart, is fun but not very believable. As the team continues to encounter disasterous roadblocks to their plan, they are always able to bounce back with incredible agility. In his reactions to the many problems, Stanley's ever-optimistic motto "This is nothing!" is run so far into the ground it ceases to be funny. The constant brainstorming between Stanley and Conrad is quite interesting to watch, but their Mutual Admiration Society grows tiresome.

Hoffman and DeNiro have no trouble with these roles, of course, although Hoffman is obviously straining to distance Stanley from his similar character in the recent Mad City. His arrogance masked with false humility is fun to watch because at some time or other we have all known or worked with this type of phony. DeNiro fails to make it through this movie without being responsible for any deaths, but his character is enjoyably un-tough. Harrelson's take on the criminal cast as war hero is somewhat off the mark; his character comes off more cartooney than it was meant to be, but unfortunately director Barry Levinson didn't interfere with this. Heche's characterization is also a little scatter-brained for what her job is supposed to be; I can't imagine any president hiring her for his top aide. That would be like choosing a vice president who can't spell "potato."

Actually, the media is not portrayed as evil in this film, just stupid. They unquestioningly believe everything fed to them by our team of storytellers and fork it over to the American public, who in turn laps it right up. In fact, just about everybody (including the president) is willing to go along with this story, whether or not they know it's a sham. The implication that Americans are either liars or gullible believers of lies is not very flattering, but anyone who has witnessed a presidential election in this century would have to admit some elements are familiar. ***

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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