Wag the Dog is a 1997 American political satire black comedy film produced and directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro.
The film centres on a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who fabricate a war in Albania to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal. The screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart’s 1993 novel, American Hero.
Also known as Bite the Bullet (US, working title).
The president is caught making advances on an underage girl inside the Oval Office, less than two weeks before the election. Conrad Brean, a top spin doctor, is brought in by presidential aide Winifred Ames to take the public’s attention away from the scandal. He decides to construct a fictional war in Albania, hoping the media will concentrate on this instead. Brean contacts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss to create the war, complete with a theme song and fake film footage of a sympathy arousing orphan. The hoax is initially successful, with the president quickly gaining ground in the polls.
When the CIA learns of the plot, they send Agent Young to confront Brean about the hoax. Brean convinces Young that revealing the deception is against his and the CIA’s best interests. But when the CIA – in collusion with the president’s rival candidate – reports that the war has ended, the media begins to focus back on the president’s sexual abuse scandal. To counter this, Motss invents a hero who was left behind enemy lines in Albania. Inspired by the idea that he was “discarded like an old shoe”, Brean and Motss ask the Pentagon to provide a special forces soldier with a matching name (a sergeant named “Schumann” is identified) around whom a POW narrative can be constructed. As part of the hoax, folk singer Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson) records a song called “Old Shoe”, which is pressed onto a 78 rpm record, prematurely aged so that listeners will think it was recorded years earlier, and sent to the Library of Congress to be “found”. Soon, large numbers of old pairs of shoes began appearing on phone and power lines, and a grassroots movement takes hold.
When the team goes to retrieve Schumann, they discover he is in fact a criminally insane Army convict. On the way back, their plane crashes en route to Andrews Air Force Base. The team survives and is rescued by a farmer, an illegal alien who is given expedited citizenship for a better story. However, Schumann is killed after he attempts to rape a gas station owner’s daughter. Seizing the opportunity, Motss stages an elaborate military funeral for Schumann, claiming that he died from wounds sustained during his rescue.
While watching a political talk show, Motss gets frustrated that the media are crediting the president’s upsurge in the polls to the bland campaign slogan of “Don’t change horses in mid-stream” rather than to Motss’s hard work. Motss states that he wants credit and will reveal his involvement, despite Brean’s offer of an ambassadorship and the dire warning that he is “playing with his life”. After Motss refuses to change his mind, Brean reluctantly orders his security staff to kill him. A newscast reports that Motss has died of a heart attack at home, the president was successfully re-elected, and an Albanian terrorist organisation has claimed responsibility for a recent bombing.
- Robert De Niro as Conrad Brean.
- Dustin Hoffman as Stanley Motss.
- Anne Heche as Winifred Ames.
- Denis Leary as ‘Fad King’.
- Willie Nelson as Johnny Dean.
- Andrea Martin as Liz Butsky.
- Kirsten Dunst as Tracy Lime.
- William H. Macy as CIA Agent Charles Young.
- Craig T. Nelson as Senator Neal.
- George Gaynes as Senator Cole.
- John Michael Higgins as John Levy.
- Sean Masterson as Bob Richardson.
- Suzie Plakson as Grace.
- Woody Harrelson as Sergeant William Schumann.
- Suzanne Cryer as Amy Cain.
- James Belushi as Himself.
- Shirley Prestia as Herself.
- Roebuck “Pops” Staples as Himself.
- Merle Haggard as Himself.
The title of the film comes from the idiomatic English-language expression “the tail wagging the dog”, which is referenced at the beginning of the film by a caption that reads:
Why does the dog wag its tail?
Because a dog is smarter than its tail.
If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.
Motss and Evans
Hoffman’s character, Stanley Motss, 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’ characterisation was based on Hoffman’s father, Harry Hoffman, a former prop manager for Columbia Pictures.
The award of writing credits on the film became controversial at the time, due to objections by Barry Levinson. After Levinson became attached as director, David Mamet was hired to rewrite Hilary Henkin’s screenplay, which was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero.
Given the close relationship between Levinson and Mamet, New Line Cinema asked that Mamet be given sole credit for the screenplay. However, the Writers Guild of America intervened on Henkin’s behalf to ensure that Henkin received first-position shared screenplay credit, finding 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 (but did not) 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 the numerous 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.
The film featured many songs created for the fictitious campaign waged by the protagonists; these songs include “Good Old Shoe”, “The American Dream”, and “The Men of the 303”. However, none of these pieces made it onto the soundtrack CD. The CD featured only the title track (by British guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler) and seven of Knopfler’s instrumentals.
On 27 April 2017, Deadline reported that Barry Levinson, Robert De Niro, and Tom Fontana were developing a television series based on the film for HBO. De Niro’s Tribeca Productions was to co-produce along with Levinson and Fontana’s company.
“Wag the Dog” Term and Usage
The political phrase wag the dog is used to indicate that attention is purposely being diverted from something of greater importance to something of lesser importance. The idiom stems from the 1870s. In a local newspaper, The Daily Republican: “Calling to mind Lord Dundreary’s conundrum, the Baltimore American thinks that for the Cincinnati Convention to control the Democratic party would be the ‘tail wagging the dog’.”
The phrase, then and now, indicates a backwards situation in which a small and seemingly unimportant entity (the tail) controls a bigger, more important one (the dog). It was again used in the 1960s. The film became a “reality” the year after it was released, due to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Days after the scandal broke, President Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes against two countries, Afghanistan and Sudan. During his impeachment proceedings, Clinton also bombed Iraq, drawing further “wag the dog” accusations and with the scandal still on the public’s mind in March 1999, his administration launched a bombing campaign against FR Yugoslavia.
- Wag the Dog was released one month before the outbreak of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton administration in August 1998, which prompted the media to draw comparisons between the film and reality.
- The comparison was also made in December 1998 when the administration initiated a bombing campaign of Iraq during Clinton’s impeachment trial over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
- It was made again in the spring of 1999 when the administration intervened in the Kosovo War and initiated a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, which coincidentally bordered Albania and contained ethnic Albanians.
- The film grossed $64.3 million on a $15 million budget and was well received by critics, who praised the direction, performances, themes, and humour.
- Hoffman received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance and screenwriters David Mamet and Hilary Henkin were both nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.
- “Why change horses midstream?” was originally a campaign slogan for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
- During the filming of this movie, director Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had an impromptu co-incidental meeting at a Washington, D.C. hotel with President Bill Clinton.
- Clinton asked De Niro: “So what’s this movie about? De Niro looked over to Levinson, hoping that he would answer the question.
- Levinson, in turn, looked over to Hoffman.
- Hoffman, realizing there was no one else, to whom to pass the buck, is quoted as saying, “So I just started to tap dance. I can’t even remember what I said.”
- “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow”, a line of dialogue in the film spoken by Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), is a real-life quotation from World War II General George S. Patton.
- The talk show phone number, 1-800-555-0199, is common to many films and television shows, because this is the only number that has been reserved by the phone company as an allowable fake 1-800 number for media usage.
Production & Filming Details
- Barry Levinson.
- Michael De Luca … executive producer.
- Robert De Niro … producer.
- Barry Levinson … producer.
- Eric McLeod … co-producer.
- Claire Rudnick Polstein … executive producer.
- Jane Rosenthal … producer.
- Ezra Swerdlow … executive producer.
- Larry Beinhart … (book).
- Hilary Henkin … (screenplay).
- David Mamet … (screenplay).
- Mark Knopfler.
- Robert Richardson … director of photography.
- Stu Linder.
- Baltimore Pictures.
- New Line Cinema.
- Punch Productions.
- Tribeca Productions.
- New Line Cinema (1997) (USA) (theatrical).
- Rainboworld Entertainment (1997) (Taiwan) (all media).
- Concorde Filmverleih (1998) (Germany) (theatrical).
- Entertainment Film Distributors (1998) (UK) (theatrical).
- Focus Film AG (1998) (Switzerland) (theatrical).
- Líder Films (1998) (Spain) (theatrical).
- Metropolitan Filmexport (1998) (France) (theatrical).
- Norsk Filmdistribusjon (1998) (Norway) (theatrical).
- Roadshow Entertainment (1998) (Australia) (theatrical).
- Sandrew Film & Teater AB (1998) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Vitória Filmes (1998) (Portugal) (theatrical).
- Warner Bros. Pictures (1998) (Argentina) (theatrical).
- Argentina Video Home (1998) (Argentina) (VHS).
- New Line Home Video (1998) (USA) (DVD).
- New Line Home Video (1998) (USA) (VHS) (pan and scan).
- Fox Network (2001) (USA) (TV).
- Front Row Filmed Entertainment (2007) (United Arab Emirates) (video).
- Argentina Video Home (2008) (Argentina) (DVD).
- PlayArte Home Vídeo (2008) (Brazil) (DVD).
- Warner Home Video (2011) (USA) (DVD) (Included with three other films in “4 Film Favourites: White House Collection”).
- Cecchi Gori Distribuzione (1998) (Italy) (theatrical).
- Edko Films (Hong Kong) (all media).
- HBO Max (2020) (USA) (video) (VOD).
- Roadshow Entertainment Video (Australia) (VHS).
- VCL Communications (Germany) (video).
- Warner Home Vídeo (Brazil) (DVD).
- Warner Home Vídeo (Brazil) (VHS).
- Release Date: 17 December 1997 (Century City, California, US) (Premiere).
- Running time: 97 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.