Like Francis Coppola, director Barry Levinson likes to alternate big movies (such as Sleepers, 1996) with smaller, more personal projects (like Jimmy Hollywood, 1994). Wag the Dog is a topical satire which – although brimming with star allure – exhibits an urgent, thrown-together energy. It feels like a comedy skit stretched well beyond its limit, but at least its basic idea is novel and timely.
When the American President is accused of sexual dalliances that stand a good chance of ruining his re-election prospects, the shadowy media expert Conrad (Robert De Niro) immediately puts ex-Hollywood producer Stanley (Dustin Hoffman) at the head of an emergency think tank.
Conrad's plan is devastatingly simple: if a fictional war with Albania can be evoked through a couple of well-timed newspaper reports and seamlessly created TV news items, then the President can once more emerge as a national hero.
Wag the Dog spins a very tall tale in which – as Theodor Adorno once said of psychoanalysis – only the exaggerations are true. Do not ask of the script (by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet) why fearless reporters refuse to go after the truth, why the Albanian government remains silent, or why the American people (and even their President) do not rise up in revolt against such an absurdly suspicious conspiracy.
Levinson's extravagant premise allows him to breezily bypass such dreary, logical questions. Like Robert Altman or Michael Ritchie before him, Levinson zeroes in on the infernal marriage of showbiz and politics: the pageants, TV ads, jingles and one-liners which manufacture appearances and seduce a gullible public.
Especially gripping is the film's patient demonstration of how a TV image can be digitally mocked-up. Levinson is at pains to remind us that, after the Gulf War and its disquieting footage of smart bombs, any audio-visual simulation, no matter how far-fetched, now seems possible.
Wag the Dog panders to a knowing viewer – the kind of viewer who takes the likes of Australian TV's Media Watch as the first and last word on mass-communications manipulation and political bias. There is a touch of glibness to this crusade and, far worse, an inability to vary the joke and keep it running for an entire movie.
The film's satire is a hit and miss affair: Hoffman's juicy turn keeps colliding with ham-fisted cameos by such celebrities as Willie Nelson. The introduction, late in the piece, of Woody Harrelson as a moronic, psychopathic convict leads the movie right off its rails.
Mark Knopfler's typically inappropriate guitar doodlings on the soundtrack do not help proceedings much, either – especially when butted up against a brilliant pastiche of "We Are the World", in an anthemic group performance which is the film's finest and deadliest coup.
© Adrian Martin March 1998