Wag the Dog is a 1997 black comedy film starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, co-starring Anne Heche, Denis Leary and William H. Macy about a Washington spin doctor who, merely days before a presidential election, distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer to construct a fake war with Albania. The scheme enlists the aid of a country music singer, who creates several theme songs for the war; a "fad king"; and a costume designer, who helps create a fictional special forces unit to fight the war's supposed battles.
The title of the film comes from an idiomatic English-language expression "the tail wagging the dog", which is commented 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.
Wag the Dog was produced and directed by Barry Levinson. The screenplay was credited to Hilary Henkin and David Mamet and is based on the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart, however, the film differs greatly from the book. In the book, the president is specifically George H. W. Bush, while in the movie the president is unnamed; the fake war operation is explicitly Desert Storm, and the war actually occurs, instead of being entirely falsified. An ironic twist was the release of the film just prior to President Clinton's sex scandal and the subsequent bombing of terrorists strongholds in Africa.
When an unnamed president of the United States is caught in a closed room making advances on an underage "Firefly Girl" (the fictional equivalent of a Girl Scout) less than two weeks before re-election, Conrad Brean (De Niro), a top notch spin-doctor, is brought in to try to take the public attention away from the scandal. He decides to construct a fake war with Albania, hoping the media will concentrate on this instead. In order to come up with his 'war', he contacts a Hollywood producer named Stanley Motss (Hoffman), who brings in a series of specialists who help construct a theme song, build up interest, and fake some footage of an orphan in Albania.
The plan's continual setbacks including an error that led to seizing a criminally insane Army prison convict (Harrelson) to be their "hero" who was "shot down behind enemy lines" do not disturb the producer, who repeatedly claims "This is nothing" while comparing the situation to a past movie-making catastrophes he averted. In the end, with the election done and the president re-elected, everything seems fine until the producer finds out from the news outlets that the media are crediting the president's win to his tired "Don't change horses in mid stream" campaign slogan, rather than Motss's elaborate plans. Motss announces that he will call the media to "set them straight," despite Brean's warning him that he is "toying with his life." When Motss refuses to back down, Brean has him killed and makes it look as if he had a heart-attack while tanning next to his pool. The film ends with a news report about a violent incident in Albania, but it is unclear whether this is a true event or simply a continuation of the fictional war.
Motss and Evans
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." 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 his own father, Harry Hoffman, a former prop manager for Columbia Pictures.
Controversy surrounds the writing credits of the movie. Original drafter Hilary Henkin took the film's producers to court and threatened to quit the Writers Guild of America after director Barry Levinson chose not to award her a screenwriting credit. Eventually, the WGA awarded Henkin credit, and Levinson himself threatened to quit the Guild, claiming that David Mamet wrote every line of dialogue, as well as creating the characters of Motss and Schumann, and originating most of the scenes set in Hollywood and all of the scenes set in Nashville. Levinson attributes any similarities between Henkin's version and the finished product to both working from the same novel.
The film featured many songs created for the fictitious campaign waged by the protagonists: "Good Old Shoe", "The American Dream" and "The Men of the 303" are but salient examples. None of these pieces made it onto the soundtrack, which was released on CD: it featured only the title track, by British guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler, and seven of Knopfler's instrumentals.
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. The film was also entered into the 48th Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Silver Bear - Special Jury Prize.
Wag the Dog received very positive reviews, with 85% of the critics polled by Rotten Tomatoes giving it favorable reviews. 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. 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."
American Film Institute recognition:
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