Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Wag the Dog Movie Review
In 1997 there was no YouTube, no Facebook, no Twitter. There were message boards, email, websites, maybe some very early blogs, but the dissemination of information and access to reports, accounts, and testimonials, for all that we thought at the time was lightning fast, was nothing compared to today. This thought occurred to me while revisiting Wag the Dog, Barry Levinson’s seventeen-year old film about an invented war fed to the media to distract the public from a Presidential sex scandal two weeks before he hopes to be reelected. In it, Robert De Niro plays Conrad Brean, a kind of independently contracted fixer brought into the White House by Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) to help clean up the mess and potential fallout once the story breaks. So Conrad enlists the help of Stanly Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a big Hollywood producer, to put the pieces in place to sell not just a war, but a whole package and all the emotions and patriotic fervor that come with it, to the public.
They pick a country, Albania, that no one knows anything about, they drum up some bogus reason they’ve suddenly become a threat, and then start dropping little hints throughout the media that something is going to happen there. This blossoms into a media blitz that includes a “We Are the World” style music recording about protecting American borders, video of an actress (Kirsten Dunst in a small early role) posing as an Albanian villager fleeing terrorist reprisals at home (all created on a sound stage of course), the creation of an old style folk song surreptitiously placed within the Library of Congress collection that is meant to help connect the public to an American serviceman supposedly left behind enemy lines. Phony military units, national crazes, songs, pronouncements, and peace agreements are all created to sell the story, and all of it done to protect a man who sexually assaulted a minor – a fact that no one ever mentions in the movie. That’s not to say that David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, who adapted the screenplay from Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero, have issued a moral failure. On the contrary, it’s one more very subtle way Wag the Dog is an incredibly astute, biting satire of American politics, power, corruption, and use of media to sell a point of view. All that matters is what people believe.
I couldn’t help but think about how different this movie would have to be if it were made today. Would it even be a plausible premise given the existence of all that social media I mentioned above? And don’t forget Wikipedia. Was the premise even plausible in 1997? To some extent it was, especially given the fact that very shortly after the movie was released, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and it wasn’t long after that President Clinton was dropping bombs on Iraq again. I don’t buy into conspiracy theories. I don’t believe it’s possible to pull the wool over the public’s eyes to such a massive extent without someone spilling the beans. One thing that bothered me about Wag the Dog was the way it so convincingly sells the idea that it’s so easy to do it. But look at all the people involved in the creation of the movie’s bogus war. There’s not only the Fad King (Denis Leary), who comes up with the various tokens that will grab hold of popularity, and the folk singer played by Willie Nelson whom Motss hires to write the songs, but all the stage hands and technicians who help create that piece of fake new footage of the fleeing actress, who is herself told by Conrad that she’ll be killed if she tells anyone about it. But there are people out there who believe it is possible to commit fraud on such a massive scale involving so many people with no one ever coming forward. You only need look into what people believe about the moon landing and 9/11. This movie could help these people affirm their insanity.
But that’s all beside the point. Wag the Dog isn’t really about conspiracy theory in such a specific sense. It’s much broader in its scope, being about the power of media, especially visual media (seeing is believing) and its relationship to the powerful as a tool for their propaganda and abuse. This movie was on point and one of the best of the year back then. But in the interim years it has revealed itself as being somewhat prescient and even more brilliant than we could have understood at the time. There is so much to unpack in this screenplay because it is so deeply and richly textured.
I’m willing to entirely forgive the film its minor faults that in any other movie might have caused me to tune out. But because there is so much good stuff happening, I’m able to look past the fact that Anne Heche’s character is pointless and irritating. Winifred comes across as nervous, prone to panic, and frankly out of her league around Conrad and Stanley. She basically hangs around people smarter than she is and fails to contribute meaningfully to the plot except that she’s Conrad’s direct connection to the President, but by the end of the film he’s not even using her as a conduit anymore. There’s also the plot heavy farcical sequence that has all three lead characters walking away unscathed from a plane crash with a psychotic military prisoner (Woody Harrelson) whom they need to stand in as their war hero. Willie Schuman is just a caricature and the whole sequence involving his getting shot dead for attacking a farmer’s daughter is insulting to the tremendous intelligence of the rest of the film. It’s the point when the screenplay starts to go off the rails, but it’s thankfully pulled back and salvaged shortly thereafter.
Another of the great pleasures is in watching Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman still acting at the top of their game. Hoffman in particular is a marvel at crafting his character, a big-time self-congratulatory movie producer reportedly modeled on Robert Evans. The inside scoop on that little detail is what brought him such plaudits and an Oscar nomination at the time. Back then I didn’t see what was so marvelous about his performance, but I can see it now. You’d have to know Evans personally to get all that Hoffman is attempting, but even if you don’t, you can see how he’s digging deep into the mind of a man who lives in such cloistered surroundings, cut off from the reality around him.
This is a movie that has possibly become better with age precisely because of what has transpired in geopolitics since. It can be viewed in multiple ways including through the prism of a post-9/11 world. When Motss floats the idea that we’re going to war with Albania because of an extremist separatist group operating independently of the Albanian government, a group that hates America’s freedom and way of life, you have consider how those were not political buzzwords in 1997. They were not yet part of the vernacular like they are today. Also the idea of a suitcase bomb and fundamentalist groups were certainly known as potential threats to people who worked in these fields and studied it, but they were not at all part of common dinner table conversation.
Then there’s the very complicated matter of the relationship between politicians, the media, and the public, and the ways in which media is used and manipulated, with visual media determining the story despite the ability to tell wholesale lies. These were powerful and deep themes then and have only become richer in the intervening years. When Conrad and Stanley collaborate on creating that fake news footage, it’s all digital manipulation and sound effects. Once it’s shown on the news, it becomes fact. One of the refrains of the screenplay is, “I saw it on TV.” The sense is that it doesn’t’ matter what the truth is or what message you want to get across, the first one delivered via the tube is the toothpaste out of the tube.So when the opposing presidential candidate (Craig T. Nelson) goes on TV and says the war in Albania is over, Stanley the producer of fiction wants to keep going as if it didn’t happen. Conrad is a realist: “The war’s over. I saw it on TV.” Nowadays it’s even more possible to create images and to use media to manipulate. If Wag the Dog annoys me for any reason, it’s precisely because of what I said above about it giving comfort to conspiracy theorists.
Even at a simpler level, Wag the Dog is brilliantly entertaining. It helps that the writing is so smart. Mamet is a great writer and his fingerprints are all over this. But this has everything you could ask for: a devilishly clever plot; masterful dialogue; wry sense of humor; and some hilarious moments (one of the best being when Conrad bests the CIA agent played by William H. Macy, who knows what’s really going on; and topical insights that continue to expand in their complexity over time. I can’t quite believe this movie isn’t getting more attention now. It’s typical for movies to shift in the way the public and the cognoscenti perceive them in hindsight. It took three decades for Citizen Kane to be regarded as the greatest film of all time and it has since been supplanted by Vertigo in many circles. In retrospect, are The Full Monty and As Good As It Gets (both Best Picture Oscar nominees) better than Wag the Dog? I know which one is holding up best nearly two decades later.