Movie Review: Wag the Dog (1997)

Wag the Dog ____ 8/10
Only the role of the CIA rings doubtful

wag_the_dogBy that I mean, in real life, were the president to try to spin favorable poll numbers by creating a phony war in the media, the CIA would be in the loop.  Indeed, the CIA would be the loop.

[Note: this is a timely reposting of my review from August 2007. Nearly 10 years have passed since the original review and nearly 20 years since the movie’s premier. For anyone who doubts that the media today conveys a manufactured reality 24/7/365, please watch this film… and be prepared to cringe in reluctant acknowledgment.]

That’s the fascinating premise of this decade-old, Clinton-era satire of what the rich and powerful friends of the president can do these days if the president gets in trouble.  In the movie the Clinton-like POTUS (President of the United States) is accused of enticing an underage “Firefly Girl” (a Girl Scout analog) into a room in the White House and taking unspecified liberties there.

The president is up for reelection within two weeks and the media is already beginning to home in on the indiscretion.  His opponent has ads playing Maurice Chevalier’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”  His handlers know he’s in deep trouble and they need to generate a smokescreen to deflect all the attention from the voters.

Presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) locates seasoned political spin-doctor Conrad Brean, who accompanies her to a White House basement skunk works and begins to work out a plan:  Let the President stay in China for a few more days, have the White House press spokesman start denying the existence of a bomber which does not exist, then create a threat from a small country no one knows much about: Albania.

Brean’s motto of media deception is “To change the story, change the lead.”   Ultimately, he plans to have the media so preoccupied—for at least 12 days—with America’s new skirmish with Albanian terrorists that they completely jettison news of the presidential Firefly incident.

He enlists the help of an old Hollywood friend of his, producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to generate moving images of the nonexistent conflict… moving as in cinema, but more important, moving as in tugging opportunistically at the people’s heartstrings.  Motss assembles his A-team and gets to work.

He uses a young actress Tracy Lime (Kirsten Dunst) to play an Albanian refugee girl.  She is shown in tattered clothes and running through a war-torn setting carrying a kitten (which is actually a large bag of Tostitos); the suggestion is she’s been violated by the Albanians and is longing for the Americans to rescue her and put an end to the horrors.  (This segment of Wag the Dog is a revealing look at the clever contrivance of a lot of scenes in real movies.)

Motss’ oddball musical director Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson) comes up with patriotic melodies and lyrics to accompany the video images, which are leaked to the media and played immediately to a national audience on all networks without examination.

Isn’t this lack of modern news organizations’ respect for the facts reminiscent of Saddam Hussein and nuclear weapons… or the rather incredible concoction of 19 hijackers flying planes into buildings under direction of a cave-dwelling Afghani senior citizen hooked up to a kidney machine?

Yes, indeed.  Wag the Dog is only the faintest slam of the journalistic profession, especially considering how horrifically irresponsible, even criminally negligent, the media have become with the emergence of the Cheney-Bush syndicate. But it is a believable indictment nonetheless.  And now with Rupert Murdoch buying the Wall Street Journal—even though they don’t call it the War Street Journal for nothing— mainstream news may be forever destined as propaganda masquerading as entertainment or vice-versa.

The main difference between Wag the Dog and modern reality is the movie is comparatively light and generally hilarious.  When the false war is uncovered by the CIA—talk about irony of ironies—and comes to a precipitous close, Brean and Motss must brainstorm another story to “change the lead” until the election.

They create this sloppy saga of a poor American soldier named Schumann (Woody Harrelson) left behind enemy lines like an old shoe.  Brean plants Johnny Dean’s recording of a song “Good Old Shoe” in the government’s World War II archives, which “magically” is resurrected and played widely.  It creates a new martyr for all Americans.  (Remind you of the Pat Tillman scandal?)

Someone screws up the records, and the real Sergeant Schumann turns out to be a psychotic who has been serving time in military prison for raping a nun.  This presents a problem… which gets us too close to the ending to reveal the details of.   But I can tell you somewhere toward the end a military marching band pounds out a Johnny Dean “Green Berets” tune on national news at six.  Makes a grown man cry… to think how easily so many can be duped.

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