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IN SHORT: Outrageous. Funny. Singular and in combination.
I don't know whether or not to sing the highest praise for a decidedly funny satire of politics and media manipulation, or to savage this sucker for implying that you and I (the "real" voting public) are a bunch of idiots. Then again, in all political satire, you and I are a bunch of idiots, so let's call Wag the Dog what it is, which is terrifically funny.
The best satire is one which cuts so close to the bone that you almost could bleed. Wag The Dog, which takes as its starting point an act of sexual impropriety by the President of the United States (much worse than what Paula Jones has accused the real President of) eleven days before the Election, proceeds to shred the images of spin doctors, Presidential aides, the Press, the CIA (and on and on) in a manner not seen since Stanley Kubrick shredded the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove.
24 hours before the scandal will break, Presidential advisors call in super secret, and very high priced, spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro) to coordinate damage control. Brean's previous Presidential outings include manipulation of the Warren Commission Report and certain video images from the Gulf War. In this situation, Brean's solution is to whip up political paranoia by creating, in the media, a war with our most feared enemy, Albania. (Insert rimshot here).
Why Albania? Brean explains everything he does to us via Presidential Aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche). That's just the starting point to the whacked out situations that will follow.
If you're gonna stage a war, you need conflict. You need situations. You need a Hollywood Producer to stage it all, which is where Dustin Hoffman, as Stanley Motss (the "t" is silent) comes in. There is no situation Motss faces that is worse than any movie he's produced, all of which he lays out in detail. There is no war which doesn't have it's own song, preferably Country (enter Willie Nelson) and it's own hero (Woody Harrelson). Motss also brings in his own damage control expert, the Fad King (Denis Leary). Across the board Wag the Dog features a brilliant cast that plays out increasingly exaggerated situations. As always, I won't tell you what they are.
What I will say is that, as the Election draws near, each plan set in motion by Brean and Motss blows up in their faces. Their reaction is to come up with a new plan even more outlandish than the old. What makes Wag the Dog funny is that every single plan is one which you've seen before in real life, or which you could see happening in real life. That's what I mean by close to the bone.
Finally, Media manipulation soon turns to a battle of egos, since no one in Hollywood can keep their mouth shut. The ending is inevitable and even then, director Barry Levinson manages to make it funny.
There's not much more I can tell you without giving the jokes away. The script, adapted by Hilary Henkin from the novel "American Hero" with additional zingers by David Mamet is tight -- don't walk out for popcorn or you'll get lost -- and funny. The performances are, across the board, all fine. This being the end of the year, I'll say that DeNiro is good, Hoffman is better. Heche could get nominated just for being the only woman in a great flick, in a year where there is, as usual, a dearth of great female roles.
If you were curious, the title is explained as the movie begins. If you think metaphorically, that's how you know you're an "idiot".
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Wag the Dog, he would have paid . . .
mind being the metaphorical idiot if the movie is good. The best films
are the ones that has Cranky chomping the bit to tell you everything that
happens (all the more frustrating when I know I won't).
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