REVIEW OF WAG THE DOG
BY DAVID MAMET
STARRING ROBERT DENIRO AND DUSTIN HOFFMAN
A raucously entertaining film about the increasingly blurred line between politics and the media.
"And blaming the President for the country's woes is like yelling at a puppet for the way it sings. Who's the man behind the curtain pulling the strings?" - Woody Harrelson
- "We choose a foreigner to hate. The new Iraq gets more irate. We really know nothing about them and noone cares." - "Sell, Sell, Sell" from Maroon by Barenaked Ladies
"This isn't gonna hold for 11 days...the guy f*@&ed a Firefly girl. What are you gonna do to hold that off?"
"What do you think would hold it off, Mr. Motss?"
"Nothing, nothing, nothing. You'd have to have a war!"
- Producer Stanley Motss and Political Spin Doctor Conrad Brean in Wag the Dog
- "War is show business, that's why we're here." - Conrad Brean
- "It doesn't have to prove out. We just gotta distract 'em. Just gotta distract 'em. Got less than two weeks until the election." - Conrad Brean
"There is no war."
"Of course there's a war. I'm watching it on TV."
- CIA Agent Mr. Young and Conrad Brean in Wag the Dog
- Nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman) and Best Screenplay Based On Material Previously Produced Or Published (Hilary Henkin and Pulitzer Prize-Winner David Mamet).
After all, we rarely get to meet these people face-to-face and, when we do, they are skilled at putting on an endearing smile and kissing babies, while carefully avoiding any direct confrontation with hard-hitting questions. Once the procession ends, the politician takes the podium and delivers a speech full of expertly polished words designed for full emotional impact.
Even the most honest politician is all but forced to play such political games, while desperately courting media attention, in order to stand a chance. In the early days of our nation, the leaders of your community were more likely to be familiar neighbors and friends. Today, however, we rarely get to know our leaders' true characters up-close in their day-to-day lives. We simply have to take someone's word for it.
The same problem applies to historical events of national significance. Surely, your textbooks and the news have given you the basic story of what happened. But, when it comes to the exact details of why and how, do we really know the whole truth about World War II or the Gulf War? How do we really know anything about Saddam Hussein or Iraq or Afghanistan? Few of us have any direct experience with these events, people and places. Indeed, a recent study showed that less than 20% of 18-24 year-old Americans, the very group that would be sent over to fight for us, can even identify Iraq or Afghanistan on a map.
Yet, somehow, despite this lack of personal experience, we have all come to share certain moments, images, songs and slogans that comprise our ideas of history and war. "Remember the Alamo", the statue of the soldiers in Iwo Jima raising the flag, and the song "Proud to be an American" ("I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free.") form part of a common mental mosaic of U.S. war history that is shared by all of us. An event happens, and suddenly, almost instinctively, we all know it's time to put on our black armband or raise our American flag. But, where did all of these historic icons originate, and how do we arrive at this seemingly synchronous, coordinated patriotism?
The point to be made is that a great many feelings about our nation's history, as well as how we as citizens should act, are based on trust. Most of all, we trust that our government, along with some amorphous panel of brilliantly talented advisors, is constantly working to protect us from any conceivable danger. We believe, for better or for worse, that our security and prosperity lies in the hands of the experts. But experts in what exactly? And who are these nameless, faceless people who make the crucial decisions regarding our country behind closed doors?
When looked at this way, it may seem needlessly conspiratorial, and we certainly don't mean to imply that all politicians, public servants, and journalists are bad people. There are certainly countless honest and caring people involved in both politics and the media. Nonetheless, before you watch one more political press conference, update on the war in Iraq or even another Bob Dole Viagra commercial, do yourself a favor and see Wag the Dog.
The screenplay is based on the book American Hero by Larry Beinhart, written even earlier, in 1994. In bringing Beinhart's book to the screen, an astounding array of talent was combined. The Pulitzer-Prize winning Mamet has been called by some the best screenwriter and playwright of our generation. His vision is transformed into action by director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, The Natural, Bugsy) and features an all-star cast. Robert DeNiro (who also co-produced), Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche and Dennis Leary put faces on the obscure symbolic (*ahem*) wizards behind the political curtain.
In the process, they take us behind the scenes with the mysterious characters in shady limousines and tophats who pull the proverbial (*wink*) strings in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the interface between these spin doctors and the public is embodied by Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson and Kirsten Dunst. William H. Macy, an old college friend of Mamet's, also makes an appearance.
The purely fictional (*cough*) plot revolves around Presidential politics. With less than two weeks before the election, the President is involved in a scandal involving sexual impropriety with a young girl. DeNiro's character, Conrad Brean, is called in to play "Mr. Fix-It". Brean is the ultimate spin doctor, a man who sees the world as one big chessboard. He quickly realizes that only one thing is big enough to distract the public from this transgression: a war.
If you've ever tried to keep a critical secret from many people, you know that you have to exercise extremely tight control to avoid any holes or leaks in your story (uh...or so we've heard). Even with all of the money and media control in the world, it's not easy to stage a fake war without getting caught. You need to carefully script every detail: every song, every picture, every move...you even have to plan how the war will be remembered later. In fact, you may even have to flat out rearrange history. And it would all have to be done with absolute and total secrecy. Who could pull off such a ruse?
Only a Hollywood producer. Enter Dustin Hoffman as the hilariously pampered and egotistical Stanley Motss, celebrated (though not enough for his tastes) and beloved producer. Motss jumps into the task wholeheartedly. The first problem...who are we fighting? Of course, if you are going to stage a fictional war (which, of course, could never happen) it would be easier to pick an enemy the public knows nothing about. The less informed they are, the less likely you are to get caught. Once the enemy is chosen, the plot thickens, and the web of lies grows so tangled that Seinfeld's George Costanza would be proud. But these guys are no Costanzas. These are the pros, and no calamity seems too difficult for them to overcome in keeping their story together and staying one step ahead of the public.
We must remind you...this is fiction and based on purely fictional assumptions. In order to believe this movie, you would have to believe the following far-fetched premises:
- That a politician would be stupid enough to get caught in a sex scandal with a young girl.
- That politicians would spend billions of dollars on public relations consultants to spin the truth to the public.
- That there could be a relationship between Washington, D.C. and Hollywood.
- That politicians would use a war right before an election to distract us from the less flattering effects of their policies.
- That politicians would then claim that the enemy country supports terrorism and/or possesses nuclear weapons to make it seem threatening.
- That the war posturing could continue on even if weapons inspectors and our own intelligence denied the enemy's nuclear capabilities.
- That a politician could escape confrontation by the press on all of these issues.
Recent debate on the role of the media in politics has focused on the enormous amounts of money spent on negative and manipulative political advertisements. But are campaign ads really the most insidious example of the perilous interaction between politics and show business? Or are the two even more fundamentally linked? For instance, nearly all of us are now aware of the importance for candidates of looking good on television. And, no doubt, they have been trained heavily in making all the right gestures, motions and facial expressions while reading their carefully scripted speeches - usually scripted by somebody else. In fact, the real campaign is starting to look startlingly similar to its portrayal on shows like The West Wing. Are politicians imitating actors nearly as well as actors are portraying them? Are Hollywood and Washington, D.C. dangerously close to becoming one and the same?
Of course, as frightening a concept as that may be, Wag the Dog is a film at which we can all laugh fearlessly. We can rest assured in the knowledge that nobody could possibly pull off the seamless manipulation of the public displayed in this film. It just isn't feasible. Nonetheless, if a Hollywood production crew with a few million dollars can pull it off, as they have in Wag the Dog, you do have to wonder what our leaders are capable of using hundreds of times the money and infinitely more access to resources. But, don't let any of that stop you from enjoying this fantastic satire. After all...it could never really happen.
Resources Related to Wag the Dog
- SystemsThinker.com's Politics Section
- "What Michael Moore Really Teaches Us About Political and Social Change in America" - August 2007 eight-part blog entry about two underappreciated lessons from Michael Moore's work and life about how to improve our society. Talks specifically about election and media reform.
Main Writings & Creative Work Page