For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we’re taking a look at Barry Levinson’s 1997 political satire, Wag The Dog.
Wag the Dog opens with a White House in crisis. With two weeks to go until the Presidential election, it’s been discovered that the incumbent President has had a brief dalliance with a girl scout. Up until the scandal became public, the President was enjoying at 17 point lead in the polls. Now, that lead is about to evaporate unless something can be done to keep the American public from thinking about the President’s personal life.
Significantly, the President himself never appears on-screen. We never learn his position on the issues. We never hear about anything he’s done during his first term. We don’t even know what political party he belongs to. (However, his opponent is played by Craig T. Nelson so I’m going to assume that the President is a Democrat. Because, seriously, it’s hard for me to imagine Nelson being anything other than a Republican…) The President remains a shadowy and insubstantial figure who, in the end, represents nothing.
Instead of getting to know the President, we instead spend the film with the aides who have to clean up after his mess. One of those aides, Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), calls in a legendary (and rather sinister) political PR man, Conrad Bean (Robert De Niro). Conrad announces that the only way to save the campaign is to distract the American public with a quick and totally fake war with Albania. Why Albania? According to Conrad, Albania has a sinister name and nobody knows anything about it.
To help create this fake war, Conrad recruits Hollywood film producer, Stanley Motts (a hilariously manic Dustin Hoffman). Much as Conrad is a legend in politics, Stanley is a legend in Hollywood. Stanley enthusiastically jumps into the project of creating a fake war of Albania, manufacturing everything from fake war footage to patriotic songs to anything else necessary to rally the American public. Denis Leary shows up as a mysterious figure known as the Fad King and schemes how to make war with Albania the latest trend. Willie Nelson sings a song to stir the spirit of every patriotic American. A very young Kirsten Dunst is recruited to play a terrified orphan in staged Albanian atrocity footage. A shell-shocked vet (Woody Harrelson) is cast as the Albanian War’s first hero. Stanley greets every problem with an enthusiastic exclamation of, “This is nothing!”
Along the way, a rather odd friendship develops between the secretive Conrad and the overly verbose Stanley. However, when Stanley, who often laments that he’s never won an Oscar, starts to complain about the fact that he’s never going to get any recognition for his “greatest production,” Conrad finds himself forced to reconsider their relationship.
Wag the Dog was first released in 1997 and, thanks to David Mamet’s darkly comedic script and Barry Levinson’s brisk direction, the film feels incredibly prophetic. Indeed, all the film needs is for someone to mention making the war a trending topic and it would be impossible to tell that it was made 16 years ago. Wag the Dog accomplishes the best thing that any political satire can hope to accomplish: it makes you question everything. Whenever one watches a news report triumphantly bragging about the latest done strike, it’s hard not to feel that Stanley Motts would approve.
Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia: