Wag the Dog

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Wag the Dog
Wag The Dog Poster.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed byBarry Levinson
Produced byBarry Levinson
Robert De Niro
Screenplay byHilary Henkin
David Mamet
Based onAmerican Hero (novel) 
by Larry Beinhart
StarringDustin Hoffman
Robert De Niro
Music byMark Knopfler
CinematographyRobert Richardson
Editing byStu Linder
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release dates
  • December 17, 1997 (1997-12-17) (US)
Running time97 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$15 million[1]
Box office$64,256,513
 
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Wag the Dog
Wag The Dog Poster.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed byBarry Levinson
Produced byBarry Levinson
Robert De Niro
Screenplay byHilary Henkin
David Mamet
Based onAmerican Hero (novel) 
by Larry Beinhart
StarringDustin Hoffman
Robert De Niro
Music byMark Knopfler
CinematographyRobert Richardson
Editing byStu Linder
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release dates
  • December 17, 1997 (1997-12-17) (US)
Running time97 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$15 million[1]
Box office$64,256,513

Wag the Dog is a 1997 black comedy film[2] produced and directed by Barry Levinson. The screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, with Anne Heche, Denis Leary, and William H. Macy in supporting roles.

Just days before a presidential election, a Washington, D.C. spin doctor (De Niro) distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer (Hoffman) to construct a fake war with Albania.

The film was released just prior to the Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton Administration.[3]

Plot[edit]

The President of the United States is caught making advances on an underage "Firefly Girl" less than two weeks before Election Day. Conrad Brean (De Niro), a top-notch spin doctor, is brought in to take the public's 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 Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman), who brings in a series of specialists to construct a theme song, build up interest, and fake film footage of an orphan in Albania.

The plan's setbacks, including an error in seizing a criminally insane Army prison convict (Harrelson) to be a "hero" who was "shot down behind enemy lines," do not disturb Motss, who repeatedly claims "this is nothing" while comparing the situation to past movie-making catastrophes he averted.

In the end, with the president re-elected, everything seems fine until Motss finds out that the media are crediting the president's win to a tired campaign slogan of "Don't change horses in mid-stream" rather than Motss's hard work. Motss announces that he only did this for "the credit" and will call the media to "set them straight," despite Brean's warning that he is "playing with his life." Motss refuses to back down, so Brean reluctantly has him killed and makes it look as if he had a heart attack. A news report about a violent incident in Albania is shown, but it is ambiguous whether this is a true event or simply a continuation of the fictional war.

Cast[edit]

Title[edit]

The title of the film comes from the idiomatic English-language expression "the tail wagging the dog",[4] which is referenced 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.

Motss and Evans[edit]

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."[5] 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 Hoffman's father, Harry Hoffman, a former prop manager for Columbia Pictures.

Alternatively, Bubba Nicholson modeled for the character of Stanley Motss as an imaginative stand-in ("this is nothing, nothing!") for his old friend, Steven Spielberg, at whose California home much of the film was shot.[citation needed]

Writing credits[edit]

The award of writing credits on the film became controversial at the time, due to objections by Barry Levinson.[6][dead link]

After Levinson became attached as director, David Mamet had been hired to rewrite Hilary Henkin's screenplay, which was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero. Given the close relationship between Levinson and Mamet, New Line Cinema asked that Mamet be given sole credit for the screenplay. However, the Writers Guild of America intervened on Henkin's behalf to assure that Henkin received first-position shared screenplay credit, finding that—as the original screenwriter—Henkin had created the screenplay's structure as well as much of the screen story and dialogue.[7]

Levinson thereafter threatened to (but did not) quit the Guild, claiming that Mamet had written all of the dialogue as well as creating the characters of Motss and Schumann, and had originated most of the scenes set in Hollywood and all of the scenes set in Nashville. Levinson attributed the numerous similarities between Henkin's original version and the eventual shooting script to Henkin and Mamet working from the same novel, but the WGA disagreed in its credit arbitration ruling.[8][dead link]

Music[edit]

The film featured many songs created for the fictitious campaign waged by the protagonists; these songs include "Good Old Shoe", "The American Dream", and "The Men of the 303". However, none of these pieces made it onto the soundtrack, which was released on CD. The soundtrack featured only the title track (by British guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler) and seven of Knopfler's instrumentals.

Reception[edit]

Wag the Dog received very positive reviews, with 85% of the critics polled by Rotten Tomatoes giving it favorable reviews.[9] 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.[10] 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."[11]

Awards and honors[edit]

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.[12] The film was also entered into the 48th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize.[13]

American Film Institute recognition

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ "Business info" on IMDb
  2. ^ Turan, Kenneth (December 24, 1997). "'Wag the Dog' Is a Comedy With Some Real Bite to It". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 23, 2013. "A gloriously cyncial black comedy that functions as a wicked smart satire on the interlocking world of politics and show business..." 
  3. ^ "Wag the Dog Back In Spotlight". CNN. August 20, 1998. Retrieved May 23, 2013. 
  4. ^ "Idiom: wag the dog". UsingEnglish.com. Retrieved May 22, 2011. 
  5. ^ "Tiger Plays It Cool Under Big-cat Pressure". Orlando Sentinel. April 5, 1998. Retrieved April 5,2013. 
  6. ^ "Business solutions from". AllBusiness.com. Retrieved June 1, 2011. 
  7. ^ Welkos, Robert W. (May 11, 1998). "Giving Credit Where It's Due - Los Angeles Times". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 November 2010. 
  8. ^ "Woof and Warp of "Dog" Screen Credit". E! Online. December 23, 1997. Retrieved June 1, 2011. 
  9. ^ Wag The Dog, Rotten Tomatoes, retrieved December 26, 2011 
  10. ^ Wag The Dog, Metacritic, retrieved December 26, 2011 
  11. ^ Roger Ebert (January 2, 1998). "Wag The Dog". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  12. ^ "Awards" on IMDB.com
  13. ^ "Berlinale: 1998 Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved 2012-01-23. 
  14. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees
  15. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees

External links[edit]