Why does a dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.
Thus opens Barry Levinson’s sharp and cynical Wag the Dog.
The president of the United States has spent 3 minutes unsupervised in a White House closet with a Campfire Girl, 11 days before the election. His spin team has that much time to distract the public and keep the Campfire scandal out of the headlines.
Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), the chief spinner, decides that something big is needed to distract the public for 11 full days. Something huge, like a war. And if an event is not wagging the media, then one has to use the media to wag the event.
Rather than having the president declare war, Conrad has the president’s press secretary deny nonexistent rumors about a fictitious bomber. He has the president’s representatives apologize to the American People for the secrecy demanded by national security. In short, he has the president give the public something even more interesting than a scandal: a secret. A secret so big that it’s busting out at the seams.
But Conrad’s war has to be more than a few rumors if it is to last eleven days. A good war has to have something memorable, something catchy that people can support and remember, like the video footage of the smart bombs in the gulf war, the five soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima, or even “fifty-four forty or fight.” So Conrad enlists movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to provide him with some visuals. In turn, Stanley enlists the aid of songwriter Johnny Green (Willie Nelson) and a team of Hollywood’s great creative thinkers.
Once all the talent is lined up, the magic really starts to happen. Songs are written, footage is staged, and rumors are leaked with all the tight cohesion of reality. A soulful “We Are The World” anthem is recorded with lyrics straight from the Declaration of Independence. A video clip is manufactured of a young girl rescuing a kitten from bombs and guns. All eyes and ears are on the president, but not because of his whoopsie in the closet. The process appears to be working.
Problems do arise, and they usually seem insurmountable. But after we get to know Conrad and Stanley, nothing seems insurmountable. Each new problem is met with optimism (“This is not a problem! This is nothing!”) and creativity. When the opposing candidate plays his own ace, Stanley and Conrad trump him with a wild card. When the CIA has them in check, Conrad convinces them they’re playing the same color. In fact, Conrad admits that he’d be a good chess player if he could only remember how all the pieces are supposed to move.
Stanley and Conrad are a lot of fun to watch. Both characters are clearly on top of the situation at all times, and both are masters of quick thinking. Each new obstacle makes you smile because you want to see how they’ll think their way around it. De Niro and Hoffman both give top-notch performances to these smart and invigorating characters.
But the movie is not all good. Some of the problems are forgivable little annoyances, like the misleading ease with which the team creates video effects, or the dragging as the story nears the end. But there is one real problem that affects the whole movie, and it is the ending.
If you don’t want to know the ending, then stop reading here.
In music, a “picardy third” is a major chord played at the end of a song in a minor key. There is no opposite to a picardy third; it just doesn’t work to put a minor chord at the end of a major song. The same appears to be true of movies. An audience will always go for an artificially sweetened ending, but an unhappy ending on a comedy, even a sharply cynical black comedy, is downright abusive.
Wag the Dog plays as a black comedy right up to the end. The tone undergoes a sudden and grave shift when we learn of the “heart attack” of one of the movie’s good guys. On top of that, it appears that a real war is going to start in Albania. Wacky “Albania,” that country with the funny name, becomes the real Albania, a country in economic ruin that can’t afford any more trouble.
The change seems deliberate, as if Levinson were trying to impart a moral, but it doesn’t work and it isn’t necessary. The change is too sudden and too drastic for it to be effective, and the movie is so full of cynicism that its message was never in question.
I imagine I’m overreacting to the ending. Most reviews I’ve read have called Wag the Dog a great movie, and for the most part, I agree. But the tone of the last few minutes really made me feel jerked around. My last response to the movie was confusion and annoyance.
Then again, maybe that was Levinson’s intent.