Perhaps what’s so surprising about 1997’s Wag the Dog is how the political satire feels so realistic over twenty years following its theatrical release.
It’s two weeks before Election Day and the president is caught making an advance on a Firefly Girl. Enter Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) and presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche). Their sole duty over the next two weeks is to keep the public distracted by any means necessary. If it means starting a fake war in Albania, so be it. This is when Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) enters the picture. The only way to make this satire even more absurd is when CIA agent Charles Young (William H. Macy) confronts them. Brean and Ames do their best to explain how going along with them will be of benefit to both parties.
This film goes from absurdity to absurdity. The CIA says that the war happens but is coming to an end. It just means distracting the public yet again. This time, it’s by saying that Sgt. William Schumann (Woody Harrelson) was left behind enemy lines (He wasn’t). But even as the hoax gets deeper, it’s not long before there is full-blown chaos. Motss isn’t happy about not receiving any credit. Who could blame him? He’s basically the man responsible for the distractions. Okay, so Brean and Ames are also complicit, too. All in all, there is no happy ending in this film.
However, what’s so surprising is that this film came out in 1997 before the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal broke out. It gets further eerie when one sees how the Clinton administration sought to distract us. Life has a way of imitating art, I suppose. Insane, really.
It’s really scary how realistic this black comedy feels in 2020. Not only does the film manage to hold up but the mere idea that could happen in 2020 is equally scary. We see it all the time on Twitter when the current president says something on Twitter to keep us distracted. Maybe it’s something that he actually learned from the film? It’s probably a good bet that we’ll never know. At least not any time soon.
Looking back at the Oscar nominations and the Academy got two things right. When you compete against the likes of Titanic, As Good as It Gets, and Good Will Hunting, it’s certainly going to be tough breaking through the cracks. The end result is a nomination for Dustin Hoffman’s acting and Hillary Henkin and David Mamet’s adapted screenplay. Considering the competition, it’s about as much as they could hope for.
Wag the Dog may be a work of political satire but the fact of the matter is this film isn’t too far away from reality.
DIRECTOR: Barry Levinson
SCREENWRITERS: Hilary Henkin and David Mamet
CAST: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, Woody Harrelson, Kirsten Dunst