Wag the Dog (1997, Barry Levinson)

Wag the Dog is a relic from the unrevealed world. Though prescient enough to know sexual misconduct isn’t enough to derail a president from either U.S. political party. As an old—who saw it in the theater, probably opening day—it’s hard to imagine how it plays to someone who’s grown up with Republicans spewing lies and hatred and the Democrats spewing different lies and conditional hatred.

There are political parties in Dog, but the film never identifies allegiances. The one time “personal” politics comes up, it seems like the good guys are Republicans (Anne Heche attacks Dustin Hoffman’s liberalism). But she could just be a Democrat too.

Heche is a White House damage control staffer. The President has just been accused of sexual misconduct and brings in image expert Robert De Niro. Heche is his handler and sidekick. Hoffman is the Hollywood producer De Niro hires to create some war media for them to distract from the molester-in-chief.

Dog’s very cynical about the rape allegations. No one cares. Again, prescient but not about everything. It’s still a world without racism—it’s pre-9/11, so the islamophobia is generalized. In fact, the imaginary Muslim fundamentalist terrorists are white. So as a satire of political reality, Dog is profoundly naive.

Luckily, it’s rarely a political satire. Director Levinson and screenwriters Hilary Henkin and David Mamet avoid it as much as possible, putting the more satirical moments on television actually, which the main characters watch and ridicule.

It’s more often a Hollywood satire, with Hoffman always ready with a self-aggrandizing showbiz anecdote. But the film’s success comes from its position as a Hollywood fable. Hoffman is the populist producer—hair modeled on Robert Evans—who finally achieves important something thanks to De Niro. The stakes are higher, though Hoffman takes a while to understand the dangerous waters he’s found himself in. Just because De Niro’s working for the President doesn’t mean everyone in the federal government wants to go to such extremes to protect a sexual predator.

I mean, haha, right? How naive can you get?

The film runs a brisk ninety-seven minutes, with De Niro and Heche leading the film from location to location. Hoffman’s top-billed, the protagonist, but he’s the protagonist because of that arc, not because of his presence. Heche, then De Niro are the driving forces, making De Niro’s performance the most important in the film. He’s got to convey a lot with a very little; heck, he sleeps through the first big brainstorming session, where Hoffman assembles the hitmakers to figure out how to gin up a war with Albania.

Director Levinson’s got a phenomenal crew here. The most impressive technical is Rita Ryack’s costumes. Whether it’s Denis Leary’s outrageous outfits (he’s “Fad King,” who figures out all the licensed goods opportunities) or De Niro’s frumpy but still stylish attire, the costumes do a lot of establishing work in the film. There’s a lot of talking (usually Hoffman talking over people—oh, and Hoffman’s outfits are fantastic too), and there are a lot of characters coming and going; the costumes don’t just help establish, they further inform as scenes play out. Also, while obviously De Niro and Hoffman can act while looking like models in very different early eighties clothes catalogs, the performance Levinson gets out of Leary is incredible. His outfit’s too absurd to be believed (though it just looks like most nineties comic book “realistic” costumes).

Anyway.

Then there’s Stu Linder’s photography. Levinson occasionally does quick emphasis zooms, and the camera’s often mobile, not going for raw, jarring documentary, but closer to cinéma vérité than not. Except Linder shoots with these bright lights, shots’ subjects practically shining, overemphasized. Despite being ostentatious, it immediately becomes one of Dog’s hyper-realisms. Neither De Niro, Hoffman, nor Heche operate in the real world. De Niro can control the national narrative, Hoffman can produce fictional reality in real-time, and Heche thinks her party will take care of her. No one in Wag the Dog’s in touch with reality because it’s not about reality; it’s about an entertaining fantasy world of respectability. The joke in Wag the Dog is they’ve got to subvert accountability because the filmmakers are so naive they think accountability exists.

It also might be hard to grok Dog without at least a passing knowledge of Hollywood trivia, specifically twentieth-century blockbusters. Lots of Bible epic and Jaws references would date the picture if the politics didn’t make it a fantasy.

The casting’s impeccable throughout. Besides the lead trio, everyone else is in an extended cameo. The most important—and successful—is Woody Harrelson, an unlikely soldier who gets wrapped up in the scheme. But Willie Nelson’s got a fun part as Hoffman’s songwriter of choice. Another thing to note about Dog’s unreality—there’s little Black presence in American pop culture. Though it’s also an appropriately white cast for the profoundly callous plot.

Some of the other casts aren’t exactly cameo level, but the parts have limited presence and require the actors to do a lot in a little time. They just happen to be the female assistants to great (white) men. Suzie Plakson’s Hoffman’s assistant, Andrea Martin’s Leary’s. Plakson’s great. Martin’s good but with so much less. Plakson gets a pre-crisis scene to banter with Hoffman, which almost no one gets in the film. Similarly, White House press guy John Michael Higgins is one of those not quite cameos but would be with a different actor. He actually gets the least to do (literally parroting for the main trio), but it works with the constraints.

Kirsten Dunst has a good scene as a young actress. William H. Macy’s got an okay one as a CIA agent. He’s there to give De Niro someone good to act off, not to act himself.

While Hoffman’s the whole show—Levinson sparingly does close-ups of Hoffman, like we’ve got to wait to see him execute this divine performance—De Niro and Heche are excellent too. De Niro’s got his less is more thing going, which leaves Heche to draw him into scenes. She’s the breakout performance in the film; she stays salient amid Hoffman doing a victory marathon and De Niro oscillating from napping to cheering Hoffman on.

The film doesn’t have a lot of time for character development, but there’s a very nice, very tragic friendship for Hoffman and De Niro. They’re star-crossed alter egos.

Wag the Dog’s outstanding. It’d be much more dated if it weren’t for the incredible naïveté. Levinson, Hoffman, De Niro, Heche, Linder, Ryack all do spectacular work. And the Henkin and Mamet script’s fantastic.