Wag the Dog

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Wag the Dog
Wag The Dog Poster.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by Barry Levinson
Produced by Barry Levinson
Robert De Niro
Screenplay by Hilary Henkin
David Mamet
Based on American Hero (novel) 
by Larry Beinhart
Starring Dustin Hoffman
Robert De Niro
Music by Mark Knopfler
Cinematography Robert Richardson
Edited by Stu Linder
Distributed by New Line Cinema
Release dates
  • December 25, 1997 (1997-12-25) (US)
[1]
Running time 97 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15 million[2]
Box office $64,256,513

Wag the Dog is a 1997 black comedy film[3] produced and directed by Barry Levinson. The screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, with Anne Heche, Denis Leary, and William H. Macy in supporting roles.

Just days before a presidential election, a Washington, D.C. spin doctor (De Niro) distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer (Hoffman) to construct a fake war with Albania.

The film was released one month before the outbreak of the Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton Administration, which prompted the media to draw comparisons between the film and reality.[4]

Plot[edit]

The President of the United States is caught making advances on an underage "Firefly Girl" less than two weeks before Election Day. Conrad Brean (De Niro), a top-notch spin doctor, is brought in to take the public's attention away from the scandal. He decides to construct a fake war with Albania, hoping the media will concentrate on this instead. Brean contacts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to create the war, complete with a theme song and fake film footage of a photogenic orphan (Dunst) in Albania.

When the CIA learns of the plot, they send Agent Young (Macy) to confront Brean who convinces him that revealing the deception is against his best interests. The CIA announces that the war has ended, but otherwise maintains the deception and the media begins to turn back to the President's abuse scandal. Motss decides to invent a hero who was left behind enemy lines, and inspired by idea that he was "discarded like an old shoe" has the Pentagon provide him with a soldier named Schumann (Harrelson) around whom he constructs a further narrative including t-shirts, additional patriotic songs, and faux-grassroots demonstrations of patriotism. At each stage of the plan, Motss continually dismisses setbacks as "nothing" and compares them to past movie-making catastrophes he averted.

When the team goes to retrieve Schumann, they discover he is in fact a criminally insane Army prison convict before their plane crashes en route to Andrews Air Force Base. The team survives and is rescued by a farmer, but Schumann attempts to rape the farmer's daughter and the farmer kills him. Motss then stages an elaborate military funeral, claiming that Schumann died from wounds sustained during his rescue.

In the end, with the president re-elected, everything seems fine until Motss realizes that the media are crediting the president's win to a tired campaign slogan of "Don't change horses in mid-stream" rather than Motss's hard work. Despite previously claiming he was inspired by the challenge, Motss announces that he wants credit and will reveal his involvement, despite Brean's warning that he is "playing with his life". Motss refuses to back down, so Brean reluctantly has him killed and makes it look as if he had a heart attack. A news report about a violent incident in Albania is shown, but it is ambiguous whether this is a true event or simply a continuation of the fictional war.

Cast[edit]

Title[edit]

The title of the film comes from the idiomatic English-language expression "the tail wagging the dog",[5] which is referenced at the beginning of the film by a caption that reads:

Why does the dog wag its tail?
Because the dog is smarter than the tail.
If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.

Motss and Evans[edit]

Hoffman's character is said to have been based directly upon famed producer Robert Evans. Similarities have been noted between the character and Evans' work habits, mannerisms, quirks, clothing style, hairstyle, and large, square-framed eyeglasses; in fact, the real Evans is said to have joked, "I'm magnificent in this film."[6] Hoffman has never discussed any inspiration Evans may have provided for the role, and claims on the commentary track for the film's DVD release that much of Motss' characterization was based on Hoffman's father, Harry Hoffman, a former prop manager for Columbia Pictures.

Writing credits[edit]

The award of writing credits on the film became controversial at the time, due to objections by Barry Levinson. After Levinson became attached as director, David Mamet was hired to rewrite Hilary Henkin's screenplay, which was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero.

Given the close relationship between Levinson and Mamet, New Line Cinema asked that Mamet be given sole credit for the screenplay. However, the Writers Guild of America intervened on Henkin's behalf to assure that Henkin received first-position shared screenplay credit, finding that—as the original screenwriter—Henkin had created the screenplay's structure as well as much of the screen story and dialogue.[7]

Levinson thereafter threatened to (but did not) quit the Guild, claiming that Mamet had written all of the dialogue as well as creating the characters of Motss and Schumann, and had originated most of the scenes set in Hollywood and all of the scenes set in Nashville. Levinson attributed the numerous similarities between Henkin's original version and the eventual shooting script to Henkin and Mamet working from the same novel, but the WGA disagreed in its credit arbitration ruling.[8]

Music[edit]

Main article: Wag the Dog (album)

The film featured many songs created for the fictitious campaign waged by the protagonists; these songs include "Good Old Shoe", "The American Dream", and "The Men of the 303". However, none of these pieces made it onto the soundtrack CD. The CD featured only the title track (by British guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler) and seven of Knopfler's instrumentals.

Reception[edit]

Wag the Dog received very positive reviews, with 85% of the critics polled by Rotten Tomatoes giving it favorable reviews.[9] At the website Metacritic, which employs a normalized rating system, the film earned a favorable rating of 73/100 based on 22 reviews by mainstream critics.[10] Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars and wrote in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, "The movie is a satire that contains just enough realistic ballast to be teasingly plausible; like Dr. Strangelove, it makes you laugh, and then it makes you wonder."[11]

Awards and honors[edit]

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: Dustin Hoffman for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Hilary Henkin and David Mamet for Best Adapted Screenplay.[12] The film was also entered into the 48th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize.[13]

American Film Institute recognition

See also[edit]

  • Astroturfing, a controversial public relations practice depicted in the film
  • Canadian Bacon and Wrong Is Right, films about an American war started for similar reasons
  • The staged testimony of the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador on the death of premature babies allegedly killed by invading Iraqi soldiers in 1990

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=wagthedog.htm
  2. ^ "Business info" on IMDb
  3. ^ Turan, Kenneth (December 24, 1997). "'Wag the Dog' Is a Comedy With Some Real Bite to It". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 23, 2013. "A gloriously cyncial black comedy that functions as a wicked smart satire on the interlocking world of politics and show business..." 
  4. ^ "Wag the Dog Back In Spotlight". CNN. August 20, 1998. Retrieved May 23, 2013. 
  5. ^ "Idiom: wag the dog". UsingEnglish.com. Retrieved May 22, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Tiger Plays It Cool Under Big-cat Pressure". Orlando Sentinel. April 5, 1998. Retrieved April 5, 2013. 
  7. ^ Welkos, Robert W. (May 11, 1998). "Giving Credit Where It's Due - Los Angeles Times". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 November 2010. 
  8. ^ "Woof and Warp of "Dog" Screen Credit". E! Online. December 23, 1997. Retrieved June 1, 2011. 
  9. ^ Wag The Dog, Rotten Tomatoes, retrieved December 26, 2011 
  10. ^ Wag The Dog, Metacritic, retrieved December 26, 2011 
  11. ^ Roger Ebert (January 2, 1998). "Wag The Dog". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  12. ^ "Awards" on IMDB.com
  13. ^ "Berlinale: 1998 Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved 2012-01-23. 
  14. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees
  15. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees

External links[edit]