Wag the Dog **1/2 1997 (R) Based on the book “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart and adapted by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. Over-the-top Hollywood producer (Hoffman) is hired by White House officials to stage a military attack against the U.S. to divert media attention from accusations that the President had fondled a Girl Scout. Show biz insiders say Hoffman’s Motss resembles one-time studio head Robert Evans; Washington insiders wonder if it’s a documentary. In fact, the entire film is one big insider’s joke. Luckily it’s smart enough , and short enough, to avoid becoming tiresome. Look for cameos by Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson. Filmed in a speedy 29 days at $15 million budget. 96 min. Dustin Hoffman, Robert DiNiro, Anne Heche, Woody Harrelson, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Suzanne Cryer, John Michale Higgins, Suzy Plakson, Kirstin Dunst, William H. Macy, Michael Belson. Director: Barry Levisnon.
I remember this movie so well – one, the big names that were part of it, two the incredible message: For events to be “real,” they do not have to actually happen. They only have to be on TV. Wag the Dog is a subversive movie that attempts to smuggle truth to the public, and also to have a good laugh at our expense. It struck a chord with me, DiNiro’s character, a CIA agent, saying in resignation at one point that “the war is over. I saw it on TV.”
The whole of the “war” was shot on a sound stage in Hollywood. Another group within the Pentagon or intelligence sees what is going on and decides to “end” the war, but it is resurrected again by the appearance of Woody Harrelson’s character, Sergeant William Schumann (“Old Shoe”) a supposed war hero actually retrieved from a mental institution. At one point Heche’s character is on a plane with DiNiro’s, and he’s explaining how reality is not really real, that television is our only reality. She mentions events like the Iranian Hostage crisis and the yellow ribbon phenomenon as an example of people rallying to support their government, and she gets a cold stare. “Oh my god, that too?”, she says. He does not answer.
In the movie, to make fun of the Yellow Ribbon scam, people are encouraged to throw old shoes up over power lines to show support for the military and its war in Albania. Harrelson’s character, Old Shoe, is a fake war hero supposedly rescued from behind enemy lines. Since he is actually crazy, he can’t be used in public and so is killed. Then a military funeral is staged vaguely reminiscent of the one that Ronald Reagan spoke at after 240 marines were blown to bits in Lebanon.
Hoffman’s character is so deriviative of Hollywood producer Robert Evans that Evans said “I’m magnificent in this film!” He is intent that his accomplishments be made public, and DeNiro reminds him not to toy with his life. He insists, and dies poolside of a heart attack.
Now and then in real life I see sneakers hanging from power lines, and realize there is an active subculture in this country that knows what is up. You might call it the “Sounds of Silence.” (It could also be kids having fun.)
Four years after this movie the U.S. would be subjected to a made-for-TV event, 9/11, which might be what led Washington insiders to speculate that the movie Wag the Dog was actually a documentary. It happened on TV, it is reality.