|WAG THE DOG (1997)|
|Time: 97 mins.|
Genre: Political Comedy
Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Hoffman) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Levinson creates a hilarious mix of satire and politics in this biting comedy that will leave you doubting the honesty of our government. With a brilliant cast and a great concept, this is a first class trip down comedy lane. At least for the first half of the film. Where it goes from there is a brutal disappointment that left me pondering how such a great film could go so wrong. Even a bad ending can't diminish the amazing turns given by Hoffman and DeNiro, however, it does tarnish the effort. Despite its' A-List cast, this is a fairly small effort and seemingly just the film to get Levinson out of the directorial hole he's been in for the past decade. He's made some classic films, so I'm excited to see him working with great material again.
The basic plot of the film has the President in political trouble sexual misconduct with a teenage girl just weeks before his potential re-election. To ensure he stays in office, it's up to his press secretary (Heche) and "manager" (DeNiro) to create a diversion that will knock the scandal out of the voting public's minds. The only thing big enough to bury this story is a full scale war. The only problem, besides the massive cost, is the lack of a worthwhile enemy. Their solution: manufacture the conflict. Who better to create a believable illusion than Hollywood? It's not easy, but they convince the best producer in town (Hoffman) to come on board for the project of his life. Of course, he can never tell a living soul about it. They create the perfect war with footage of a bombed-out city, a meaningful theme song and a heartbreaking hero.
The "war" is an instant ratings success. However, it takes all their energy and intelligence to stay on top of the secret. When Woody Harrelson appears on the scene as a drugged-out, psychotic, rapist who's supposed to "play" their war hero, Corporal Shoeman, the film takes a drastic and unlikely turn. It has nothing to do with Woody's performance, but the plot in general. The film is no longer about three smart people manipulating the world with mere words and pictures, but a farce that becomes silly and overindulgent. There is no reason to make their hero a reality, especially since he ends up dead. Why bring reality into the picture? Why not just fabricate his untimely death, which is what they're forced to do anyway? The final third completely destroys the credibility and intelligence of these characters. They become jugglers instead of strategists. Certainly being in an unplanned situation helps tighten the screws, however, it could have been done better.
DeNiro and Hoffman prove once again why they are two of the best actors working today. The true nature of DeNiro's job is never revealed, but one can assume he's a player with real power. He's clearly connected to some dangerous people, ones who can make a messy situation disappear for good. This is one of his most subtle roles and he plays it with wit and intelligence. Hoffman has the showier piece, as the Robert Evans-type producer who understands the secret nature of the job, but still wants official credit anyway. Even though he's warned, on pain of death, to keep his mouth shut, there's a twinkle in his eye that guarantees he's going to tell this story the first chance he gets. It's a pitch perfect performance that deserves all the acclaim he received. Anne Heche rounds out the trio nicely as the stoic press secretary willing to do anything to keep her job. She holds her own, which is quite impressive. She should look for more roles that allow her to be as smart and funny as she is here.
The dialogue is crisp and witty. Their manipulation of the press, both believable and scary. It makes one wonder what disturbing pieces of information are being manufactured for us to swallow. Or what the government is trying to keep secret from us. The basis of this film could easily have been turned into a drama, though I'm glad it wasn't. Clever, intelligent, mature films don't come around very often. Despite the ludicrous nature of the final half hour I guess the deception had to unravel at some point this is a well-written and acted comedy that will make you laugh and think.