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USA 1997
Directed by
Barry Levinson
97 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Wag The Dog

Barry Levinson’s film which was scripted by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin from a book by Larry Beinhart is a deliciously hyperbolic satire about media manipulation and political skullduggery in the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free that takes to the limit the premise that as politics is all lies and more damn lies, who better to run the show than the masters of illusion, Hollywood.

It’s two week before the Presidential elections when the incumbent president who is standing for re-election is hit with a sex scandal. One of the President’s aides, Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), calls in fixer, Conrad Bream (Robert De Niro), who in turn enlists hot-shot Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to help him stage a diversionary story about an imminent war with Albania.

Featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Hoffman as the blow-waved, fake tanned producer, the kind of character Enrico Rizzo would have been had things gone his way, the ploy unrolls with frightening ease as the media swallow the lies hook line and sinker particularly as Motss packages them with the kind of manipulatively sentimental, populist theatrics he’s learned from producing pop-corn crowd pleasers. As the lies get bigger Motss and Bream wag the dog furiously and the media and in turn, the public, eat it up.

The scenario reaches comically ludicrous proportions but that’s exactly why the film works as satire. By grounding the lies in a recognizable reality of "news" reportage, the truth is visible through the caricature. It is a strategy that still holds good today (in real life Clinton’s “Zippergate” would break the following year and, in the most infamous instance of media spin, George W. Bush’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” became a ruse to win popular endorsement for an invasion of Iraq in 2003).  

FYI: Hoffman had won an Oscar for his performance in Rain Man (1988) which was also directed by Levinson.




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