A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the president is accused of molesting a teenage girl. All of the main characters lie and work to defraud the voters in order to have their candidate re-elected. A woman sleeps with a man in order to advance their conspiracy. Conrad has a producer killed when he threatens to reveal the faked war.
What's the story?
In this creepily resonant film, the president calls in Conrad Bream (Robert De Niro) to divert the attention of the electorate away from an emerging sexual molestation charge against him -- 11 days before the election. Bream's job is to get the public to think about anything else, and he does. With the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (played hilariously by Dustin Hoffman), singer Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson), military convict Sgt. William Schumann (the ever-creepy Woody Harrelson), and talent agent Fad King (Denis Leary), Bream tries to pull off the biggest distraction ever: a War on Terrorism against Albanian rebels. Why Albania? "Why not Albania?" Bream counters. And then adds, "War is show business." "This is nothing new," he asserts. "During Reagan's administration, 240 Marines were killed in Beirut. Twenty-four hours later, we invade Granada. That was their story, that was their MO. Change the story, change the lead. It's not a new concept."
Is it any good?
Leaving the politics of the film aside, it's very well done. DeNiro is clearly having a great time playing a political mastermind dressed as a college professor, and Hoffman is irresistible as the megalomaniacal producer who's always got a story of how producing a movie is harder than producing a war. Once you get past the eerie feeling that you're watching voter fraud with a happy soundtrack, Wag the Dog is quite enjoyable.
In the book 1984, George Orwell created a world in which a corrupt government controls its people with campaigns of fear and ever-rotating wars against shadowy enemies. WAG THE DOG shows how that kind of corruption could be played out in the TV age. This film will be forever steeped in the world of Clinton and Monica Lewinski and the attack on Somalia for those who saw it in the theater in the late '90s. But it's oddly resonant in the early '00s as well, in a world of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, ever-shifting wars on terrorism, elusive Osama Bin Laden, and Guantanamo Bay.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about their reactions to the film's premise: Do you believe that the government is so desperate to stay in power that it would stage a war to do it? What are the correlations between the film and recent military attacks? This is also a good opportunity to teach kids to think critically about the messages the government is sending -- how do you judge for yourself whether a government policy is good or not? How do politicians use emotions to manipulate voters?
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