OffG Recommends…Wag the Dog

A bleak, biting, brilliant satire that really get’s it.

Kit Knightly

“Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog.”

Wag the Dog is possibly the greatest political satire Hollywood has  produced. It’s just that simple. If you only take one message away from this review, it should be that.

That might seem an absurd claim in a world where Dr Strangelove and Network exist, but Wag the Dog does something no other film has ever really dared to do…

…it keeps the story real.

It doesn’t feel the need to extend into absurdity to water down its points, nor make concessions to the character or intentions of the ruling class.

So often, too often, films or television which are hailed as “biting satire” – think The Thick of It or Veep – are de-fanged by becoming cosy. The political world portrayed as a circus inhabited by foolish but well-meaning clowns. Failures are of imagination or competence, never character or intent. People may be self-centered or shallow, but never really malign.

Wag the Dog, uniquely,  doesn’t pull any of those punches.

Directed by Barry Levinson and released in 1997, the story follows political “fixer” Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) who is drafted in by the incumbent administration to divert the public’s attention away from a Presidential sex scandal.

With the election just twelve days away the POTUS has been accused of sexual misconduct by a teenaged girl. Knowing that such a huge scandal can only be diffused by an equally huge distraction, Brean enlists Hollywood producer Stanley Motss with a simple mission: Fake a war.

And they do.

They invent soldiers and heroes and casualties and enemies. They fake atrocities and POWs and public support. With nothing but narrative – briefings, press-releases, strategic “leaks” and denials, Brean constructs an entirely fake reality and his audience live in it, and never doubt it for a moment.

Wag the Dog is brilliant in its comedy and brutal in its bleakness.

Really, when discussing it we need to focus on its dual aspects – as both film and political message.

The Film

Satire aside, Wag the Dog is an achievement as a piece of art.

Visually it’s nothing special. Levinson steers the story and does very little else. He’s at home in the medium of the intimate, mid-budget character pieces – think of Rain Man or Diner. Wag the Dog is another example in that genre, though the scope of the story is wide its scale is small. The world outside the camera is much bigger than one we witness in front of it.

It’s a story, mostly, about the interplay of two men – Brean and Motss. There’s hardly a shot that doesn’t have one of them in it, and there’s no quirk of editing, lighting or setting to entertain the eye, it’s just told straight.

These days stories this small are usually highly stylized, the domain of eccentric auteurs like Wes Anderson or Yorgos Lanthimos. In that way the film is dated, an example of the grounded visually real drama/comedy that flourished briefly from the mid 90s to the end of the 2010s thanks to writer/directors like Alexander Payne or Peter Hedges.

The performances, across the board, are pitch perfect, with fun small parts for Woody Harrelson, Dennis Leary and Willie Nelson, and good supporting work from the late Anne Heche.

But, really, the movie belongs to the two leads.

Brean (De Niro, right) finds a kindred spirit in Motss (Hoffman, left)

It is the contrast between the characters and performances that drives the film forward.

De Niro plays Brean as cerebral, cool-headed  and quiet, a friendly face over a core of steel. We don’t know exactly who he is or what he does, we only get a few clues for reference.

We know he was instrumental in setting the stage for Desert Storm, and was privy to the first draft of the Warren Report (“It said Kennedy was killed by a drunk driver”).

And we know his reach is as limitless as his cynicism. He is witty, charming…and psychopathically pragmatic. He doesn’t particularly want to lie, he doesn’t want to hurt anyone…but he will without hesitation  if he needs to.

Opposite that you have Hoffman’s ebullient and theatrical Motss – a more straightforward trope. A consummate showman who revels in the thrill of “producing” on the fly. A man so engrossed in creating his pretend war he never truly engages with the reality of his situation until he’s forced to.

What they share is something that few others in either the film world or real world have – an innate understanding of how to spin a narrative, and how people respond to storytelling.

This shared vision is what drives the movie and their success.

The music, too, deserves a mention. With the stand-out being the song pastiches, most particularly the “The American Dream”, an almost cruel pastiche of charity songs such as We Are the World or Do They Know It’s Christmas?:

All that said, the star of the movie is the script. It is sharp and subtle and moves along at pace. It conveys a lot of information quickly, but sacrifices no craft to this efficiency.

As with most of the screenplays that work the winding route from initial idea to finished film, it is the product of several hands, the last of which was David Mamet. You can feel Mamet’s sharpness in the dialogue, and his cynicism in the characters. He also displays his complex understanding of both human nature and showbusiness. I don’t doubt at least some of the Hollywood types Motss uses to paint his pictures are based on people Mamet had met in real life.

Yes, as a piece of well-written, well-acted cinema Wag the Dog is rare, but as a piece of political satire it is singular, if not entirely unique.

The Politics

In the late 90s, reeling from the sexual scandal with Monica Lewinsky, US President Bill Clinton’s administration bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Four months later, in the midst of his impeachment, Clinton launched a huge bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The next year they entered the Yugoslav war and bombed Belgrade.

Anyone familiar with US politics from this time, and hearing a rough summary of the plot of Wag the Dog, would assume it was written as a direct analogy to Clinton’s handling of the Lewinsky scandal.

The truth is it was released in December 1997, exactly a month before the Lewinsky story broke.

A demonstration of the film’s level of, if not insider knowledge, then at least insider understanding.

But Wag the Dog is not just prescient of the months following its release, it “predicts” much further into the future.

It didn’t just anticipate the Lewinsky scandal by a few weeks, it got the jump on  the war on terror by four years.

When Brean and Motss have chosen their enemy, Albania (“Why Albania?” — “Why not?”), they need to decide on a reason for the war to start…

MOTSS: What do we have that they want?

BREAN: Freedom.

MOTSS: No, no, no. Fuck Freedom. No. Fuck Freedom. They…. They Want… They Want To Destroy the Godless Satan of the United States…They want to destroy our Way of Life.

It is perfect, and as we now know – totally real. It could be lifted straight from a post-9/11 Cheney or Rumsfeld speech.

The eventual story of their “war” – that Albanian terrorists have built a “suitcase” nuclear bomb and are attempting to smuggle it into the US over the Canadian border –  is patently absurd. There is, of course, no nuclear suitcase bomb, they just made it up because it sounds cool. There are no Albanian terrorists.

It’s a silly, reality-defying comic book narrative of a kind we’re now all too  familiar with. Remember the Salisbury “nerve agent”, or “Covid sniffer dogs” or myriad other impossible lies sold with straight faces.

That’s the uniqueness of the film, that it “sees the future” of spiraling anti-reality, drawing a picture of a society that was only just taking shape in 1997: the society we live in now.

In short, it just gets it, in a way few people do and no movies ever do.

The White House Press secretary is a talking head, a sock puppet. At one point Brean makes a phone call during a press conference to dictate a trite and irrelevant response, which the Press Secretary repeats, word for word, without question or pause. He never asks why, and none of the reporters ask why he’s suddenly changed topic. Brean does this to prove a point about the nature of his control.

When the war is in the planning stages, Brean and Presidential Aide Ames (Anne Heche) briefly discuss how there could be a “back end” to financially compensate Motss and his team. Brean suggests a product tie-in, selling ribbons or badges, like the “Yellow Ribbon” campaign for the Iran Hostages. When Ames off-handedly begins to say that was a naturally occurring phenomenon, Brean’s wry smile shuts her down.

In Brean’s world, the elite political spin doctor’s world, nothing is a “naturally occurring phenomenon”.

Later, as they are shooting fake war footage in front a blue screen, a debate rages over whether the fleeing Albanian “peasant girl” should be carrying a puppy or a kitten. Meanwhile the “peasant girl” is asking if she can put this on her resumé, she’s told no.

Shooting “war atrocities” on a bluescreen.

At one point Brean commissions someone to write an old-sounding country song, his team doctors it to make it sound aged, record it on vinyl and have it placed in the library of congress as if it’s been there for sixty years.

Nothing is sacred, truth is relative, the best story beats reality every time.

When they are officially starting the “war”, they don’t announce it they deny it. Before the press conference reporters are forewarned –  “don’t ask about the situation in Albania”. Naturally, one of them does.  And then another does.  A third asks if the situation is linked to “Muslim extremist groups”, something no one has mentioned until now.

Pretty soon “the situation in Albania” becomes the only thing they want to talk about. The journalists think they’re challenging authority when they are actually doing its bidding.

We see this in the real world all the time, with careful “leaks” telling people – even alternate media who should know better – the alleged “true story”, revealing the “forbidden knowledge” that we “must not talk about.” It’s not exactly steered, it’s just a stone rolled down a hill. Few of the people think they’re being controlled, but all of them  are.

One of the most powerful and interesting scenes in the film comes roughly halfway through the movie. The “war” is well underway by now, when Brean and Ames find themselves face-to-face with the Director of the CIA who tries to give them a reality check. He tells them he knows there is no war, his agents know of no terrorist activity in Albania and no combat forces on the ground,  spy satellites show nothing.

Ames immediately goes on the defensive, excusing herself in myriad ways and ruing the decisions that lead them here. Brean, however, goes on the offense, telling the CIA that if their spy satellites don’t see his war “then what good are they?”, that if the CIA doesn’t play along their job is essentially pointless, and lecturing the man on the nature of modern warfare…

If you go to war again, who is it going to be against? Your “ability to fight a Two-ocean War” against who? Sweden and Togo? Who you sitting here to Go To War Against? That time has passed. It’s passed. It’s over.

The war of the future is nuclear terrorism. It is and it will be against a small group of dissidents who, unbeknownst, perhaps, to their own governments, have blah blah blah […] that is the war of the future, and if you’re not gearing up, to fight that war, eventually the axe will fall. And you’re gonna be out in the street. And you can call this a “drill,” or you can call it “job security,” or you can call it anything you like […] Because there ain’t no war but ours.

The premise is that the age of wars – as they are commonly understood – ended when the Soviet Union fell. Maybe even before that. Now war – as Orwell says in 1984 – is a product for domestic consumption and control, a story to tell.  The details don’t matter to guys like Brean.

What matters is one arresting image to get public attention, a memorable slogan, a hero to cheer and a villain to jeer. Brean communicates this neatly in his opening pitch to Motss, claiming all wars are essentially showbusiness, products you advertise:

Here’s the Short Course: Fifty-Four, Forty or Fight. What does that mean? Remember the Maine…Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!

We remember the slogans, we can’t even remember the fucking wars. Y’know why. Cause it’s show business. That’s why I’m here.

Naked girl, covered in Napalm. Five marines Raising the Flag, Mount Suribachi. Churchill, V for Victory, Y’remember the Picture, fifty years from now, they’ll have forgotten the war. Gulf War? Smart Bomb, falling through the roof. 2500 missions a day, 100 days, One Shot of One Bomb. The American people bought that war. M’I getting through to you? […] It’s show business, Mister Motss.

Instrumental in all of this is the role of television. Television is almost its own character in the film. In almost every scene there is a news station in either background or foreground, usually reporting lies – lies we’ve seen our protagonists write – as if they are the truth.

Television is the oracle that holds a spell over the public, if they see it on TV it is true. But this power comes with limitations and rules. Primarily, you can never – ever – retract or reverse something that was shown on TV.

They demonstrae this when, suddenly and unbeknownst to Brean or Motss, Senator Neal (Craig T Nelson) – the man running against the incumbent President – goes on TV to announce an end to the war: “the situation in Albania is resolved…My military sources confirm that our troops, along the Canadian Border, and overseas are standing down”.

“He just ended the war”, Brean tells Motss, who replies, “he can’t do that”.

Brean tells him: “He just did, I saw it on TV.”

There are rules being alluded to here. Brean knows they can’t simply hold their own press conference and say “Neal was wrong”, or “Neal was lying”, because to countermand the voice of the TV breaks the oracle’s spell. If just one thing on television is shown to be untrue it might burst the bubble, it might wake people up to the fact anything they are watching could be a lie.

In this fashion the media becomes a tug of war, the battlefield of competing narratives in a combative never-ending game of “Yes, and…”

Too familiar isn’t it in our world of “lab-leaks” and “new studies” and whistleblowers that seek to direct and control the narrative without ever going too far and questioning the underlying assumptions upon which it’s built or threatening any vested interests.

There are threads no one can pull, or the whole system unravels.

The movie ends the only way it can end, the apotheosis of constructed reality. A fake army unit singing a made up song over the coffin of a man who never existed who “died” in a war that never happened…all livestreamed on national television.

People are probably at home saluting the TV, or crying and hugging.

The President wins his election, McDonalds has a tie-in burger range, Nike are selling “commemorative” shoes…

the war is over.

…and as the credits roll over the only real tragedy of the film, the television sparks up one last time:

…this just in, a group calling itself “Albania Unite” is claiming responsibility for the bombing moments ago of the village of Close, Albania. The President was unavailable for comment, but General Scott of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says he has no doubt we’ll be sending planes and troops back in to finish the job.

This war might be over, but who knows when you might need the next one?

Is this more of Brean’s work, or has the system picked up the “fake war” ball and started running with it?

We don’t know, we’re not told and in truth it doesn’t matter.

As I said, Wag the Dog is the greatest political satire Hollywood had ever produce. Get yourself a copy, a physical copy, before it gets memory-holed.


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