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With: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, Kirsten Dunst, William H. Macy, John Michael Higgins, Suzie Plakson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Belson, David Koechner
Written by: Hilary Henkin, David Mamet, based on a book by Larry Beinhart
Directed by: Barry Levinson
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 97
Date: 12/17/1997

Wag the Dog (1997)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Tube Politics

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back when they used to make records out of vinyl, there was a thing called a "45," or a single. For maybe a buck, you could buy one song that you heard on the radio and liked, without having to buy the whole album. On the other side of the 45, there was another song, often a throwaway or something that wouldn't sell on its own, called the B-side. Moviemaking has now adopted this policy. It first happened in 1993 when Steven Spielberg made two movies, one an a-side movie, an expensive movie produced for the masses, Jurassic Park, and a smaller, less expensive movie that wouldn't have otherwise been made, Schindler's List.

In the last 8 months, it has happened twice. Spielberg directed The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the A-side, then Amistad, the B-side. And now Barry Levinson has joined the club with his A-side, Sphere, and his B-side Wag the Dog.

You would think that Wag the Dog would be the A-side. It's getting all the acclaim, the Oscar nominations, and it will probably be remembered longer than Sphere, but Hollywood doesn't think that way. They spent more money on Sphere, and, by God, it had better do more business. Wag the Dog is a "word of mouth" kind of movie. They don't have to spend so much to advertise it.

Anyway, Wag the Dog is a wonderful, very entertaining, and almost unbelievably timely movie. It contains the best work that Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro have done in a decade. Robert De Niro plays a kind of super-spin doctor who is hired to get the president out of a sexual scandal two weeks before the election; he comes up with a war on Albania. He hires Dustin Hoffman, a movie producer to take care of the TV work, the songs, the graphics, and the war itself. Anne Heche plays De Niro's nervous assistant.

The fact is, even if it hadn't tapped into current sexual scandals and phony wars, Wag the Dog is still a tremendously smart and funny movie. I doubt it will age as well as Network, but it is close to that realm of brilliance. It has a scrappy low-budget feel, as if this were a team of anarchic students looking to raise hell, rather than some of the finest professionals in the business.

It was written by David Mamet, one of the two or three strongest screenwriters working today, and Hilary Menkin (Romeo Is Bleeding).

As for the 45 record phenomenon? I'm all for it. Normally, all we would have is garbage like Sphere. Now, we have a very good movie as a result of the bad movie. I say to Hollywood, let the filmmakers do the low-budget good movies in exchange for the big budget bad ones. We have a choice as to which ones we will pay to see.

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