Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog Information

Wag the Dog is a 1997 black comedy film 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.


When a fictional President of the United States running for a second term is caught in a closed room 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 try to take the public 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 a Hollywood producer named Stanley Motss (Hoffman), who brings in a series of specialists who help construct a theme song, build up interest, and fake some footage of an orphan in Albania.

The plan's setbacks, including an error that led to seizing a criminally insane Army prison convict (Harrelson) to be their "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 election having taken place and the president re-elected, everything seems fine until Motss finds out from the news outlets that the media are crediting the president's win to his tired campaign slogan of "Don't change horses in mid stream" rather than Motss's elaborate plans. Motss announces that he will call the media to "set them straight", despite Brean's warning that he is "toying with his life". When Motss refuses to back down, Brean has him killed and makes it look as if he had a heart attack while tanning next to his pool. A news report about a violent incident in Albania is shown, but it is unclear whether this is a true event or simply a continuation of the fictional war.



The title of the film comes from an idiomatic English-language expression "the tail wagging the dog", which is commented 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

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." 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 his own father, Harry Hoffman, a former prop manager for Columbia Pictures.

Writing credits

Controversy surrounds the writing credits of the movie. Given the close relationship between Barry Levinson and David Mamet, who had been hired to rewrite Hilary Henkin's screenplay (loosely adapted from the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart) after Levinson became attached as director, New Line Cinema originally asked that Mamet be given sole screenplay credit; but the Writers Guild of America intervened on Henkin's behalf to assure that Henkin received first-position shared screenplay credit, ruling that as the original screenwriter Henkin had created the screenplay's structure as well as much of the screen story and dialogue. Levinson thereafter threatened to 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 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.


See Wag the Dog (album) for more information

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


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

Awards and honors

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. The film was also entered into the 48th Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Silver Bear " Special Jury Prize.

American Film Institute recognition

  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs " Nominated
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
    • "This is nothing!" " Nominated

See also

  • Astroturfing, a controversial public relations practice depicted in the film
  • Canadian Bacon and Wrong Is Right, films about an American war started for similar reasons

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