Wag the Dog Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 2 DVD release of Wag the Dog

Thanks to its uncanny foreshadowing and paralleling of real-life political events (chiefly the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Kosovo bombing), Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog has already passed into popular folklore – though its “modern classic” status comes about more from its subject than any especial skill on the filmmakers’ part.

Put bluntly, if considered purely as a film, Wag the Dog is really not that good – a satire whose one basic joke is certainly funny enough to sustain it for half the running time, but it’s a little ironic that the characters in the film have a problem devising a second act, because that’s exactly what the film’s actual creators stumble over: having set up a hilarious (and worryingly plausible) premise, they simply can’t work out how to follow it through.

But the first half is terrific – days from an election campaign, the President is revealed to have (brace yourself, I know this is a little far-fetched) had an affair with a White House intern. His campaign team calls in Conrad Breen (Robert De Niro), one of the great masters of the black arts of spin, and his solution is simple: distract the media by giving them something big to focus on – like a war.

Since actually starting a war is out of the question (it is of course unthinkable that a president would actually bomb a few foreign countries in order to divert attention from domestic matters), Breen’s solution is to call in Stanley Moss (Dustin Hoffman), a big-time Hollywood producer with all the experience, expertise and contacts to knock up a totally fake but totally plausible war with Albania, complete with all the attendant media button-pushing (a girl running across a burning bridge clutching a kitten, a POW missing in action, Jim Belushi – who is of Albanian extraction – pleading for understanding, and so on).

This part of the film is so good – right down to delicious background details such as Willie Nelson improvising a song about the Presidential shenanigans after mis-hearing the terms of his commission – that it’s a real let-down that Wag the Dog runs out of steam so quickly once the war has got underway.

But having set the wheels in motion, the film-makers have clearly run out of things to say (which isn’t normally a problem with a writer of David Mamet’s calibre) – and the second half degenerates into a series of diminishing-returns repetitions of earlier jokes and situations, increasingly irritating catchphrases (Hoffman’s “This is nothing!” response to every crisis is particularly grating) and a final descent into megalomania that is simply not credible given the care taken up to then to make things convincing.

Whatever my problems with the film, though, there’s precious little faulting of this DVD, which is a model of how to get it right in terms of both content and presentation. The film itself has been transferred in anamorphic 1.85:1, and the image is as close to faultless as makes no difference – pin-sharp, lots of fine detail, impressively punchy colours (De Niro’s red scarf is a standout in almost every shot it’s in!), the works. It’s slightly grainy at times, but that was characteristic of the theatrical print, and it actually helps the documentary feel.

There’s not a lot wrong with it sonically either – although mostly dialogue-based, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix comes into its own during the scenes where the war is being faked, particularly the all-celebrity singalong. There are eighteen chapter stops, and I particularly liked the selection menu – the relevant clips from each scene play on TV monitors, waiting for you to select the appropriate “channel”.

Before describing the extras, a brief aside: I simply cannot begin to fathom Entertainment in Video’s marketing policy. Given that they’ve been rightly slammed for releasing numerous substandard DVDs, why on earth do they come over so coy when they actually have a DVD worth shouting about? Wag the Dog has enough extras to rival a Criterion or Universal Collector’s Edition release – or indeed a New Line Platinum Edition, which is effectively what it is under the bonnet – but you’d never know it from Entertainment’s packaging!

So what do you get? Well, there’s all the obvious basics – the theatrical trailer (which gives away huge chunks of the plot and many of the best jokes, so watch it afterwards!), production notes, biographies and filmographies that also include brief interview clips with the subjects (Hoffman, De Niro, Heche, Levinson, Mamet – the latter being represented by William H Macy) and a ten-minute production featurette.

So far so standard, but there are three rather more heavyweight items on the menu. ‘Macy about Mamet’ is exactly what it says – a six-minute interview with William H Macy about his long-term collaborator and friend David Mamet, both in general biographical terms and specifically in terms of his contribution to Wag the Dog.

There’s also a commentary from Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman that explores the background and production of the film in rather more detail. Levinson is consistently articulate and interesting, but Hoffman is rather less so – there’s a lot of umming and aahing and his contribution is rather low-key (annoyingly, the film dialogue under the commentary is badly out of sync, but that’s a relatively minor problem).

But the meatiest extra is ‘From Washington to Hollywood… and Back’, an intelligent and engrossing 25-minute documentary that takes a benefit-of-hindsight look at Wag the Dog and its uncanny paralleling of contemporary political events set against an exploration of Hollywood and its relationship with politics in more general terms, not to mention general media issues such as the plausible faking of the news. Interviewees include Barry Levinson, producer Jane Rosenthal, A Face in the Crowd writer Budd Schulberg, Manchurian Candidate director John Frankenheimer, The War Room directors D.A.Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, newsreader Tom Brokaw, former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers – which neatly cover all the bases of fiction, documentary, news and spin, and ensure authoritative comment.

A superb package, in other words – which just goes to show that you should never judge a DVD by its cover!

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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