Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Wag the Dog

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 11, 2000

It doesn’t have to prove out, we just gotta distract ‘em. We just gotta distract ‘em. We got less than two weeks to the election.

Special features

Cast Information4
Commentary Track6
History Lesson4
Writer Info3

The president is accused of molesting a child. The president’s guilt or innocence doesn’t matter. What matters is the election in eleven days.

RecommendationRent Soon!
DirectorBarry Levinson
WritersLarry Beinhart, Hilary Henkin, David Mamet
Movie Rating8
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating7
  • Enhanced Widescreen
  • Pan and Scan

When “Wag the Dog” came out, it hit the theaters just as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking. While it may have helped the movie’s sales, it was unfortunate—and ironic—that the movie’s message about media manipulation was overshadowed by the argument over whether the movie had anything to do with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Within the world of the movie, one can question whether the scandal was created to dilute the effects of the movie’s issues!

“Wag the Dog” is a two-star movie: Robert deNiro and Dustin Hoffman. The two work incredibly well together. The story is based lightly on a novel about the gulf war by Larry Beinhart. Barry Levinson was asked to direct the movie, and decided that he didn’t want to—but that there was a story within the story he’d like to do. So they commissioned David Mamet to write “Wag the Dog”, about the triangle trade of media manipulation by political spinmeisters, politicial manipulation by media outlets, and the manipulation of the American public by all of them.

This is an incredibly well-written movie. Mamet really gave them their money’s worth on rewrite. Director Barry Levinson seemed to know just how to get the best acting out of the actors, at the same time keeping an eye out for some really good ad-libbing. Hoffman and deNiro are both at the top of their form here, playing slightly different characters than normal, if anything could be normal for them. Conrad Brean (deNiro) is a political “Mr. Fixit”, called in only when the real shit hits the fan. He calls on producer Stanley Motss to put together a fake war to keep the public eye off of the charge that the President molested a “Firefly Girl”, some sort of Girl Scout-like character, in the White House.

Brean’s assistant Winifred Ames is played by Anne Heche, who could also have a good future in front of her if she could choose some more movies as good as this one. And Willie Nelson does a great job as the songwriter that Motss hires to write some good patriotic or otherwise useful songs. William H. Macy has a surprise, almost cameo-like appearance, as a CIA agent.

All in all, the movie is nearly flawless. If I could complain at all, it is that the movie didn’t go “out there” far enough: it was already obsolete on an “outrage” level by the time it came to the theaters!

The DVD has some really good extras. The commentary by Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman offers some very interesting insight on Levinson’s directing style, as well as on movie-making in general, especially the kind of “Hollywood low budget” that this movie was. The budget was “only” fifteen million dollars, and was filmed in a month.

The cast information is fairly standard.

What I’ve called the “History Lesson” is a text discussion of the history of media and political satire in American movies. Displayed as text on a television screen, it of course cannot go into any detail. It looks to have needed a lot more editing than it received. Words are misspelled and missing. One of the screens is shifted to the right, losing two or three letters at the end of each line on that screen. Interestingly, it seems to assume a certain level of familiarity with the reader. For example, at one point they mention “Being There”, and later analogize something else to “Chauncey Gardener”—without ever mentioning who “Chauncey Gardener” was or that he was the main character in “Being There”. It may be that they were assuming that anyone who would see the “Wag the Dog” DVD must have also seen “Being There”—and they might be right. But it is more likely just that they didn’t have enough room to do anything interesting and also didn’t have any editing at all.

There is an odd “introspective” interview with William H. Macy about writer David Mamet. It should have been longer: they should have given Macy more time to ramble on with stories and anecdotes. As it was, it seemed to be a masturbatory “feel-good” piece on Mamet.

The featurette is also interesting. It is a collection of interviews with folks involved with the movie, including Levinson, as well as media figures such as Tom Brokaw. I’m not sure if Brokaw realized it, but seeing him give what is after seeing the movie a clearly scripted piece defending the press is an eye-opener. It’s just a blatant sell of the kind the Stanley Motss wanted in “Wag the Dog”.

I recommend this movie. At least rent it. You may want to purchase it. I haven’t decided myself yet if this has the “rewatchability” required for purchases, but I’m definitely going to want to see it at least once more.

Recommendation: Rent Soon!

DirectorBarry Levinson
WritersLarry Beinhart, Hilary Henkin, David Mamet
Based onAmerican Hero
ActorsDustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche
Spoken languagesEnglish, French
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
Special FeaturesCast Information, Commentary Track, Featurette, History Lesson, Trailer, Writer Info
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