Wag the Dog (1997)
Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet
Directed by Barry Levinson
When the President is under the weight of a scandal he gets help from Conrad Brean, a master spin doctor who has an endless bag of tricks to manipulate the media. He creates distractions that get people talking about the spin instead of the scandal. So the President needs his help when he is caught fooling around with an underage Firefly scout during her troupe’s visit to the White House. Brean strikes upon the idea of creating a false war with Albania to fill up the news cycle. Brean gets help from White House staffer Winifred Ames and Hollywood producer Stanley Motss to create a false yet believable war. This war comes complete with footage from war-torn Albania, a star-studded patriotic anthem, and war hero that needs to be brought home.
Wag the Dog came at an incredibly crucial time in American politics and matched up so closely with events that followed its release some observers gave it prophetic powers. The film was initially based on a novel that focused on the George H.W. Bush presidency and posited that Operation: Desert Storm was a bid by that leader to get re-elected. When the film was finally being made during the Clinton era, it became necessary to tweak the concepts for a more contemporary context.
Of all the films I’ve watched in this marathon, this is one that still feels pointedly relevant particularly in its comments on the relationship of the media and political spin. Behind the scenes, characters are churning up this ridiculous staged war consulting trend makers and Hollywood scriptwriters. When we see the media reporting what the White House is feeding them there is no sense people in the newsrooms are questioning what is happening. Everyone admits they know little about Albania so they shrug and guess there must be some good reason to go to war with them.
Dustin Hoffman is essentially the star of the show as producer Motss (the “t” is silent). He’s modeled after any number of sun-drenched relics who are attempting to carry over their successes in the 60s and 70s into a new mode of focus-grouped filmmaking. I immediately recalled the notorious Robert Evans when I saw Hoffman present himself on screen, directly ranting about how no one knows what producers do but if there were no producers, we’d have no movies. Denis Leary assists him as Fad King, Andrea Martin as script doctor Liz Butsky, and Willie Nelson as Johnny Dean, the man who will write the theme song of this war.
Wag the Dog shares a lot of its cynical take on White House operations with HBO’s Veep. While the television series sticks more with the machinations of the staff and Wag is about media manipulation they both portray the people who do most of the day to day rough work as compromising their sense of morals at every opportunity. Throughout all of the vastly illegal things done, Ames continually worries about any undocumented immigrants being involved because they could get in much trouble.
In the Clinton era, a movie about a President in a sex scandal and using a military strike as a distraction was all too true. After word of Monica Lewinsky began to leak the President ordered the bombing a pharmaceutical facility in Sudan claiming they were producing nerve agents. At the time it drew much criticism for being a little too conveniently distracting from the scandal. The 9/11 commission would later find that there was no evidence of a “wag the dog” scenario, but suspicions, driven by the film remain today. This is not the closest a movie would come to look at the dark side of President Clinton. That belongs to our next movie: Primary Colors.