Wag the Dog (1997)
R Dir: Barry Levinson | New Line | 96 min.

Review By: Matt Brighton | January 28th, 2012

Plot: What’s it about?

Ahhh…political satire. Something about it just makes life a little better, don’t you think? Ok, maybe not that much better but it’s nice to see that our elected officials aren’t the image of perfection that we think they are. Granted “Wag the Dog” came out nearly ten years ago and there’s been a lot happening in the White House since, but political satire never really goes out of style, does it? (The answer is “No”, by the way). Just as “Network” eerily predicted that television would take over the world, “Wag the Dog” showed us that you don’t need to have actual events happen, the mere illusion of them happening is enough to win over the American public. As Rober DeNiro’s character says repeatedly: “It’s true, I saw it on TV.” And that makes you think…just because we see something on TV or read it, we automatically assume that it’s true. It might be or it might not, but the perception of reality is sometimes just as good or better than the actual thing. Scary, huh?

And so we have “Wag the Dog”.

It’s an election year and the President (a nameless/faceless person for all intents and purposes so we don’t associate the president with any one man) who has evidently forced himself on a “Firefly Girl” just a few weeks before his re-election. This will spell disaster for his campaign so something needs to be done to take the heat off the man in the White House. Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro) is brought in as someone who can get the job done and by enlisting the help of a Hollywood Producer (Dustin Hoffman). The two invent a war with the country of Albania to divert the voting public off of the “Firefly Girl” scandal. The fact that this works isn’t the main point of the movie, it’s how things are done that really is the draw. We see how closely connected with the White House these people are, how they can use the system to manipulate the public’s image of anyone. It’s rather disturbing. The real draw here are Hoffman and DeNiro who are in top form (they would later re-unite in “Meet the Fockers”) and having a great time with their roles.

As all satire goes, there is a sad lesson at the end. Naturally I won’t say what it is, but satire is satire for a reason. Nothing in life is permanent and will last forever. “Wag the Dog” sports a fine supporting cast with Craig T. Nelson, Kirsten Dunst, Woody Harrelson and Anne Heche to name just a few. Ironically enough, just a few months after this movie initially came out, the scandal with former President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was the talk of the town. The movie hit all the right notes and like so many other political movies before it (JFK, Network, All the President’s Men) this had some real-life repercussions. Director Barry Levinson is in fine form here and certainly “Wag the Dog” is another feather in his cap; right up there with “Rain Man” and “Diner”. For those that have never seen the movie, it’s still pretty poignant even today. And remember, if it’s on TV then it must be true.

Video: How does it look?

“Wag the Dog” was one of New Line’s initial entries into the DVD market and one of their first (if not the first) Platinum Series titles. Keep in mind that this was back when they actually included the widescreen version of the film and the full-frame on one disc – that’s nearly a thing of the past nowadays. At any rate the 1.85:1 anamoprhic transfer looks pretty good considering that the format was new. I caught some softness around the edges and a few of the scenes showed a bit of dirt and grain but for the most part it’s a good-looking transfer. Just for kicks I turned the disc over (yes, the full-frame version is on the other side) and watched a few scenes from the full-frame side and it does look clear, but after seeing it the way it was meant to be seen the film looks “zoomed in”. I don’t know, it’s just not right watching movies that way! Suffice it to say that “Wag the Dog” looks great on DVD, even a full 8 years after it’s first (and only) release on DVD.

Audio: How does it sound?

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn’t the most robust out there, but then again it’s not supposed to be. The movie is mainly dialogue-driven with some ambient effects thrown in here and there for some extra action. The front stage bears the brunt of the soundtrack and I did notice a few times when the surrounds came into play, but not that many. There’s also a Dolby Surround mix included, but like the full-frame version there’s no feasible reason to use the surround mix unless you plan on getting anything less than the full effect. A nice mix and certainly nothing to complain about.

Supplements: What are the extras?

One of the things that has changed since the initial rollout of DVD are the menus. I guess we’ve become so used to these fancy, motion menus that when watching something that came out in 1998 feels a bit…dated. Nevertheless, New Line packed some supplements on the disc and we start out with a commentary by Director Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman. The two are very chatty and deliver a very good tongue-in-cheek track that’s nearly as enjoyable as the movie itself. There’s also a featurette on political satire as a whole and some interviews with the writer. A theatrical trailer is included as are some cast bios and some text-based Production Notes. While technically the DVD might be a bit dated, the movie will more likely than not stand the test of time.

Disc Features
  • (1.85:1) Aspect Ratio
  • Video Codec: MPEG-2
  • Audio: Dolby Digital
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Audio Commentary
  • Deleted Scene(s)
  • Featurette
  • Documentary
  • Digital Copy
  • 1 Disc Set
Wag the Dog

4
Video
Audio
Extras