Can a movie created in the late 90s still speak to a voting audience in the late 2000s? Prior to "Wag the Dog" my answer would be "no", but watching, and now re-watching it for a second time in the past week, this film could be watched today, watched next year, or even watched prior to the next four elections, and it would continue to feel current, real, and modern in today's political/cinematical world. The power of the dialogue, the intense chemistry of the characters, and the constant interruption of the television generation into the political world will continue to keep "Wag the Dog" out of the black hole of cinema it will not be dated, never forgotten, and forever enjoyed. As we continue to allow CNN to give us our news, this film will remain as vivid as America's apple pie.
Act I: The Chemistry of the Characters
Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman could play chess for three hours, and it would capture my attention from beginning to end. DeNiro is a powerhouse of an actor, not just because he can play the tough gangster type, but also because he can take a character like Brean and give us simple, verbose, and intelligent. His range can be seen throughout this film. He commands each scene that he is in, focusing our attention on each of his words and lingering on his next move. In my eyes, it is more powerful than "Goodfellas" or "Casino" because of his subtle nature. The scene that stands out for me in "Wag the Dog" that requires viewing for DeNiro's talent is that between CIA Agent William H. Macy and DeNiro discussing the honesty of the war on Albania. To me, this shows the power of his talent.
Jumping onto the other side of this film, there is Dustin Hoffman. While DeNiro pulls his obvious strengths with this film, Hoffman makes "Wag the Dog" more than just a political film. Listening to the commentary, Hoffman discusses the fact that he nearly didn't make this film because he couldn't find Motss's character. Thankfully he did, due to his compelling portrayal; we are taken from political conspiracy cinema to this raw human drama. The final act was sublime due to both DeNiro and Hoffman's chemistry, but also because we believed Motss' words. As audience members, we wanted to see him tell his story (knowing that he never would). It was the human element, the Motss' true self, that we were drawn to, and Hoffman stayed true to those moments until the very end. This isn't your typical Hollywood happy film, this basis itself on albeit conspiracies but honest conspiracies. Could you survive the greatest hoax ever and promise not to tell a soul? Surrounding these characters, we had Willie Nelson, Denis Leary, Anne Heche, Kirsten Dunst, William H. Macy, John Michael Higgins, and who could forget Woody Harrelson. These are our players, and they take us from scene to scene with the greatest of ease.
Act II: The Writing & the Directing
David Mamet. Does anything else need to be said? Having been a full time follower of his work, I was not surprised to see that it was his quick-witted words coming from our characters' mouths. It is the fast-paced level of intellectual banter that transforms "Wag the Dog" into the powerhouse that it is. It works because you finish watching the characters actions and it is the words you find yourself quoting for weeks after. Mamet's political punch to this film was reminiscent of Kubrick's ideas behind "Dr. Strangelove". The two were films that were absurd, but it was also the ideals that they were satirizing that makes both viewable today; just as powerful as they were when they were released. Mamet's words with Barry Levinson's direction takes "Wag the Dog" into perfection. There are no heroes, there are no villains, and we know so little about the characters that it is simply the story, or the words, that pull us into this film. The beats are hit, the angles are crisp and tight, and our characters are perfection possibly the best casting in years. With this in mind, we have only the third act remaining cause, as everyone knows there is always a third act!
Act III: The Final Thought
Overall, "Wag the Dog" is perfect. Very few films in my eyes fully carry the honor of being watchable at any time, any decade, or any political year but "Wag the Dog" does. Watching with a group of friends, I was surprised as to how many had not seen this feature, remembering that it had been birthed nearly 11 years ago, it still seemed surprising. "Wag the Dog" overturns those political conspiracy theories and makes you laugh, think, and realize the impact of our commercial media. It was enjoyable to hear the current terms like "plumber" and "commercial president" in this 1997 film, boasting the truth that this film was made before its time. Looking back, there are those that could complain about our premise being too cliché, that the same conspiracy theories have been done again and again, but to me, this was fresh. This entire film was fast-paced, amazingly acted, and media driven. In the commentary, it is talked about how it is rumored that the media doesn't even check sources any further, and this is a glowing example of that regime.
Grade: ***** out of *****