Friday, September 3, 2021

Wagging the (Hot) Dog: Barry Levinson Discovers His Calling

 Today—as California moves toward an outrageous recall election and U.S. military spokesmen tapdance around the situation on ground in Afghanistan—it’s not easy to keep politics out of my head. Which is why I returned to one of my favorite Barry Levinson films, Wag the Dog. Partially written by the always razor-sharp David Mamet, and shot in a remarkable (for a star-studded Hollywood flick) 29 days, it is a black-hearted look at how the political process can be manipulated to shape public opinion.

 You see, the President of the United States has slipped off to the Oval Office with a young female Firefly Scout. The press has gotten wind of it, and the election is less that two weeks away.  POTUS’s loyal staffers, desperate to salvage his re-election campaign, call in top spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who knows that a big international distraction is what’s needed. Like, maybe, a war with Albania? Such an undertaking needs some Hollywood pizzazz, and Brean knows exactly who to call: producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). Motss, still miffed that he’s never won an Oscar, plunges eagerly into this new project, even though he’s been warned he will never publicly be able to claim credit. The heart of the film involves examples of Stanley’s inventive handiwork, like a video clip of a bogus Albanian maiden – with kitten inserted via CGI – telling the camera how badly she needs American intervention to help save her homeland. (She’s played by Kirsten Dunst, looking particularly fetching in her peasant rags.)

 When the CIA, in league with the President’s political rival, announces that the non-existent war is over, Brean and his team come up with one final burst of inspiration, in the form of an American soldier supposedly left behind on the field of battle. An Army prison supplies them with the soldier, Sergeant William Schumann, around whom they create an entire heroic mythology involving a nickname, The Old Shoe, and a sentimental ballad theoretically dug out of the archives of the Library of Congress. (Sung by none other than Willie Nelson, it launches a whole campaign of old tennis sneakers being tossed onto telephone wires, in honor of the brave lad.) 

 I won’t spoil the film’s ending, except to note that Wag the Dog was released in theatres a scant month before a certain U.S. President was making headlines for his Oval Office frolics with a zoftig female intern. And not long thereafter, that administration was bombing Sudan’s Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory. Life imitating art?

 Barry Levinson, who’s still very much an active Hollywood presence, started out as a screenwriter, then made the leap into the director’s chair. His biggest moment as a director probably came in 1989 when he won the Oscar for helming Rain Man. But I’m partial to his 1982 debut film as a writer/director, one that helps capture the Baltimore of his birth. When you’ve been watching classic Hollywood movies, full of snappy dialogue and carefully choreographed movement, Diner seems almost loosey-goosey. This tale of six buddies who hang out afterhours at the local diner is basically a character study, one that conveys a sense of improvisation by its young cast. They’re out of school and restless: even sporting events and marriage pale before the pleasure of being in one another’s company over a plate of fries. Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, and Tim Daly have all gone on to major Hollywood careers. But they’ve never been better than in this warm-hearted ode to the American boy-man who hasn’t figured out how to grow up.  








  1. As a 76 year-old who STILL hasn’t figured out how to grow up I agree that Mr. Levinson’s (what a magical name) most stirring picture WAS “Diner.” All those young actors, the woman included, created fabulous characters and each one of did even better in subsequent films. Super insight on your part. Bob. PS. Loved every episode of “Homicide,” and will watch everything Andre is ever in.

  2. Always good to hear from you, Bob. I've never seen Homicide, but should put it on my list. I certainly didn't mean to exclude the women in Diner -- whatever happened to the great Ellen Barkin? And I still chuckle at the subplot of Steve Guttenberg's character refusing to get married unless his fiancee scores high on a quiz about his sports heroes, the Baltimore Colts.