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Wag the Dog

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1998 • Volume 5 • ISSN 1095-9629




Screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. Directed by Barry Levinson. 1997.


What's hotter than sex? According to the press, war.

Based on Larry Beinhart's novel, American Hero, David Mamet's screenplay for Wag the Dog, which expanded upon Hilary Henkin's original script (hence the joint credit required by the Academy of Motion Pictures), tells the story of presidential advisor Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro), the ultimate political operative. Brean's job is to divert the nation's attention from a scandal involving the President and a teenage "Firefly" girl which breaks while the President is visiting China. Advised by Brean to remain in China while he devises a diversion, the President extends his trip, while Brean and his assistant Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) fly to Los Angeles to hire Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to produce a "war." Coerced by the President's representatives, Motss quickly marshals his team of writers, actors, musicians, and technicians. Footage of a fleeing Albanian war refugee (Kirsten Dunst), filmed with apparently authentic scenery, smoke, and sound effects, airs on the national news the following day.

Masterminding the con, Brean simultaneously supervises Motss's production of a foreign war while advising the President on the best course of action to maintain peace on the domestic front. When the CIA gets wind of Brean's deception, it soon becomes clear who has the power. Thus, although Brean believes that he convinces the CIA agent, Mr. Young (William H. Macy), that the war with Albania is real, the CIA suspects artifice. They quickly tip off the President's opponent, and as quickly as the war "started" it is over. But not for Motss. As producer of this "film," he convinces Brean that although Act Ithe heated battle- is over, the timing is perfect for Act II: the return of a captured war hero, Sgt. William Schumann (Woody Harrelson). In one of the film's funnier moments, Brean informs Motss that the President has criticized Schumann's speech, relating the events of his capture behind enemy lines, as corny. Countering the President's opinion with his own, Motss proposes to test Schumann's speech in front of a group of White House secretaries. Brean and Ames, waiting outside the door to the office in which the group has met, are shocked to see the women leaving the room in tears. Taking their cue from Schumann's name, Motss instructs musician Johnny Green (Willie Nelson) to compose an appropriate patriotic song entitled "Old Shoe," which Brean then files in the Library of Congress to foster the deception that this newly minted tune is a 1930s folk song.

Believing that they have saved the day, and effectively extended coverage of the "war" until the presidential election, Brean, Ames, and Motss await Schumann's arrival at a deserted airport in a drenching rainstorm. Hurrying to get out of the rain, the three do not take notice of MPs standing in the background. Likewise, when the officer in charge presents Ames with a release form, she quickly signs her name without reading it.Then, only after Ames signs the form, does the officer hand her a set of keys: Schumann, in chains, is a military prisoner, presumably one that the CIA has pawned off on the unwitting spin doctors and Hollywood producer. However, before the plane arrives at Edwards Air Force Base, it crashes. The characters find themselves stranded at a Ma and Pa store in quintessential Middle America. As Ames attempts to call Washington, the psychotic Schumann makes his moves on Ma and is shot and killed by Pa. Motss recovers to save his "picture" in a fitting Act III: what's better than the return of dead hero?

When the tail wags the dog, the dog is in trouble. The set-up of Mamet's screenplay shows how the Presidential press corps feeds the media (and the nation) manipulated news. The viewer is led to believe that spinmeisters are the ones that wag the dog. However, the subplot reveals that secret operations and behind-the-scenes operatives wag the dog. Motss still wants credit where credit is due. Refusing money and a plum ambassadorship, he demands public recognition for his "masterpiece." Brean warns him, as he did the "Albanian" refugee, not to say or do anything, but Motss defiantly refuses to listen. Brean has him killed, although the death in his LA home is reported as an apparent heart attack. Ironically, as Wag the Dog concludes, Albanian insurgents threaten to draw the United States into combat.

New York University