Wag the Dog

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.[1] The screenplay concerns 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 novel American Hero.

Wag the Dog
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBarry Levinson
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based onAmerican Hero
by Larry Beinhart
Music byMark Knopfler
CinematographyRobert Richardson
Edited byStu Linder
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release date
  • December 17, 1997 (1997-12-17) (Century City)
  • December 25, 1997 (1997-12-25) (United States)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$15 million[1]
Box office$64.3 million[2]

Wag the Dog was released one month before the outbreak of the 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.[3] The comparison was also made in December 1998 when the administration initiated a bombing campaign of Iraq during Clinton's impeachment trial over the Lewinsky scandal.[4] 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 borders Albania.[5]


The President is caught making advances on an underage Firefly 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 photogenic orphan. The hoax is initially successful, with the President quickly gaining ground in the polls appearing afterwards.

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 did happen but is drawing to an end, the media begins to focus back on the President's sexual abuse scandal. To counter this, Motss decides to invent 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 have the Pentagon provide the team with a soldier named Schumann around whom a POW narrative is constructed, complete with T-shirts, patriotic songs, and faux-grassroots demonstrations of patriotism and solidarity. 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, signs that the movement is taking 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, who kills Schumann after he attempts to rape the farmer'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 Motss's hard work. Despite previously claiming he was inspired by the challenge, Motss announces 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 back down, 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 organization has claimed responsibility for a recent bombing.




The title of the film comes from the idiomatic English-language expression "the tail wagging the dog",[6] 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."[7] 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 Hoffman's father, Harry Hoffman, a former prop manager for Columbia Pictures.

Writing credits

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 assure 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.[8]

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.[9]


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 Rotten Tomatoes, Wag the Dog has an approval rating of 85% based on 72 reviews, with an average rating of 7.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Smart, well-acted, and uncomfortably prescient political satire from director Barry Levinson and an all-star cast."[10] On Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average rating, the film has a score of 73 out of 100, based on 22 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[11]

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."[12] He ranked it as his tenth favorite film of 1997.[13]


The film was nominated for two 70th Academy Awards: Dustin Hoffman for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Hilary Henkin and David Mamet for Best Adapted Screenplay.[14] The film was also entered into the 48th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize.[15]

TV series

On April 27, 2017, Deadline reported that Barry Levinson, Robert De Niro, and Tom Fontana are developing a TV series based on the film for HBO. De Niro's Tribeca Productions will co-produce along with Levinson and Fontana's company.[16]

"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'."[17] 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 Lewinsky scandal. Days after the scandal broke, Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes against two countries, Afghanistan and Sudan.[18] During impeachment proceedings, Clinton also bombed Iraq, drawing further "wag the dog" accusations[19] and with the scandal still on the public's mind in March 1999, his administration launched a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.[20]

See also


  1. Turan, Kenneth (December 24, 1997). "'Wag the Dog' Is a Comedy With Some Real Bite to It". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 18, 2017. A gloriously cyncial black comedy that functions as a wicked smart satire on the interlocking world of politics and show business ...
  2. "Wag the Dog (1997)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 2, 2017.
  3. "Wag the Dog Back In Spotlight". CNN. August 20, 1998. Archived from the original on September 15, 2012. Retrieved May 23, 2013.
  4. "Cohen criticizes 'wag the dog' characterization". CNN. March 23, 2004. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
  5. Reed, Julia (April 11, 1999). "Welcome to Wag the Dog Three". The Independent.
  6. "Idiom: wag the dog". UsingEnglish.com. Retrieved May 22, 2011.
  7. "Tiger Plays It Cool Under Big-cat Pressure". Orlando Sentinel. April 5, 1998. Retrieved April 5, 2013.
  8. Welkos, Robert W. (May 11, 1998). "Giving Credit Where It's Due - Los Angeles Times". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  9. "Woof and Warp of "Dog" Screen Credit". E! Online. December 23, 1997. Retrieved June 1, 2011.
  10. Wag The Dog, Rotten Tomatoes, retrieved December 26, 2011
  11. Wag The Dog, Metacritic, retrieved December 26, 2011
  12. Ebert, Roger (January 2, 1998). "Wag The Dog". RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved April 18, 2017.
  13. Ebert, Roger (December 31, 1997). "The Best 10 Movies of 1997". RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved February 22, 2019.
  14. "Awards" on IMDB.com
  15. "Berlinale: 1998 Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
  16. Petski, Denise (April 27, 2017). "'Wag The Dog' Comedy Series In Works At HBO". Deadline Hollywood. Penske Business Media, LLC. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  17. Wei Kong, Wong (November 19, 2016). "A dog's life". The Business Times. Retrieved November 18, 2019.
  18. Dallek, Robert (August 21, 1998). "Are Clinton's Bombs Wagging the Dog?". Los Angeles Times.
  19. Saletan, William (December 20, 1998). "Wag the Doubt". Slate.com.
  20. Sciolino, Elaine; Bronner, Ethan (April 18, 1999). "How a President, Distracted by Scandal, Entered Balkan War". The New York Times.
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