Wag The Dog
Its bite is as good as its bark.
Thursday, January 15, 1998
The Chinese government orders the slaughter of a million disease-carrying chickens but doesn''t dispose of the bodies, a Chicago physicist named Richard Seed announces plans to open a human cloning clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, and photos of Bill and Hilary frolicking on a beach in the Caribbean are the hot topic of political debate.
How can satire hope to succeed when reality is this weird?
The answer can be found in director Barry Levinson''s Wag The Dog, a fast, funny and ferocious satire that explores the melding of show biz, politics and the nature of behind-the-scenes struggles for power and political gain.
Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman star as Conrad Brean and Stanley Motss, two birds-of-a-feather whose talents for stage craft and audience manipulation are employed to salvage the president''s faltering re-election campaign.
With just two weeks to go before election time, the president has been accused of a slight "indiscretion" with a young Firefly Scout in a back room off the Oval Office during a White House tour.
Desperate to downplay the event before the press and the President''s opponents can exploit the issue, White House aides summon media wizard Brean for a little damage control. To the rescue comes Brean, who hatches a wild but not-too-improbable scheme to divert attention from the president''s priapic peccadillo by staging a war with Albania.
Taking his cue from the Persian Gulf war, Brean heads to Hollywood to recruit Motss and his creative team to stage a war of his own-complete with "heart-rending" images of bombed-out villages, fleeing refugees and appropriately patriotic theme music.
Like the best satire, Levinson''s scenario is just real enough to be plausible, yet far-fetched enough to reveal many of the darker truths of modern politics.
Some of the movie''s funniest moments involve Motss'' struggling with one creative crisis after another-trying to fend off the President''s efforts to micro-manage his TV production, and going head to head against the CIA and the political opposition for control of the story that will be told to the American people.
Motss, an eternal optimist with a preternatural ability to rebound from every crisis and catastrophe, responds nimbly to each unexpected change in the game-plan. After press reports that hostilities between Albania and the United States have been resolved, Motss keeps the ruse going by plucking out a supposed war hero from the conflict. Even when the hero is more than anyone bargained for, Motss finds a way to pull out a last-ditch win.
Hoffman delivers a gleeful and hilarious performance as the megalomaniacal Hollywood producer called in to revive the President''s ailing re-election campaign. Hoffman''s Motss is a prototype for all those Hollywood players who, in their ego-driven myopia, view the movie industry as a well-spring and microcosm of all human knowledge and experience.
De Niro, as befits his character''s role and personality, delivers a more subdued but equally delightful performance. De Niro, who bears a startling resemblance to former Reagan mediameister Lyn Nofziger, effectively communicates Brean''s pleasure at pulling the strings behind the scenes while watching his game plan fall into place.
If there is any flaw in Wag The Dog''s fragile, satiric edifice, it is asking the audience to believe that no other media source or country would uncover Brean''s elaborate hoax, or that the media''s rabidity would prevent it from entirely dropping the sex scandal story in favor of the war. It would have been interesting to see how the media itself becomes a willing or unwilling participant in such blatant manipulation of the news and how audiences become complicit when they blindly accept what they see on TV as the truth.
Where Wag The Dog succeeds best is in underscoring how television distorts the political process, and how it has created an environment where propaganda and sloganeering have become substitutes for principled discourse and oratory.
Where most Hollywood satires reach for some type of happy ending to placate audience desires to feel uplifted, Wag The Dog stays true to form and delivers a satisfyingly dark ending. The film makes it clear that although politics is viewed as a game, the consequences of such games can be quite serious.
If Wag The Dog has any truths to communicate, it is in revealing the underlying cynicism and desperation that fuels modern politics. There is no escaping the irony of how much attention, energy and effort are given to putting the appropriate "spin" on a given political position, and how little to serious public and social policy.
How gullible and nave the electorate has become is an issue that is none-too pleasant to confront. And, as Wag The Dog suggests, our eagerness to accept the superficial blandishments of our politicians, has made us all guilty of sacrificing integrity at the altar of success.