Ethics & Public Policy Center

Wag the Dog

Published in EPPC Online on January 1, 1998



Readers may remember my reservations about the all-but universally praised L.A. Confidential a few months ago — a film which I note continues to garner award after award from less fastidious critics. Yet, thought I, what was the point of a movie in which everybody but a couple of utterly self-absorbed heroes is basically scum? Aren’t we, the audience, honorary members of the scum class when the loneliness of these romantic heroes is so exalted? Who needs this? Ought not a movie, like any other artistic essay, offer us a world with some loveliness in it in order to be lovely itself? Some of these reflections came back to me as I watched Wag the Dog by Barry Levinson, a movie the bleakness of whose view of the world is unrelieved even by a romantic hero or two. Surely it must be rarely that one finds, even in today’s Hollywood, a picture in which there is not even one sympathetic character? How is it possible to laugh, except with a sort of despairing and diabolical croak, at such stuff?

Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet and based on the novel, American Hero, by Larry Beinhart, the film tells the story of an American president (who never actually appears) involved in a sex scandal just a few days before he hopes to be re-elected. His spin doctor, Connie Brean (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer called Stan Motss (Dustin Hoffman) go to work to produce an imaginary war with Albania in order to distract the moronic press corps from pursuing the story of the President and the “Firefly Girl.” Brean cites the precedent of President Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, which distracted the press from the story of the 240 marines killed in the Beirut truck bombing the same week. Even the Gulf War, Brean claims, could easily have been a hoax. Who knows? And what difference does it make anyway, so long as people believe it?

Well, much as Levinson and Co. would like you to forget the fact, there are answers to these questions. There is even a case to be made, believe it or not, for the invasion of Grenada. The problem with this and other satires of the media’s openness to manipulation by clever “spin doctors” is that they are all written from such a quintessentially media point of view themselves. It is Hoffman’s character who makes the point (and another of the film’s problems comes from the fact that there is no clear distinction of character made between him and De Niro’s) that you sell a war with a slogan or a picture. Think of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” (actually the slogan for an election rather than a war) or “Fifty-four Forty Or Fight” (the slogan for a war that never happened) or “Remember the Maine.” Or think of the picture of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi or of the Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack.

These are the kinds of things, says the sapient Stan, which are remembered long after the wars which gave rise to them are forgotten. But this is true only of the kind of shallow, ignorant, image-obsessed people who bring us the TV news (and movies like this one), not of everyone. Not even of everyone who votes. Such contempt for the American people, which the oh-so-sophisticated and presumably élite audience of this film is being invited to partake in, is so overwhelming that several good jokes and fine performances from Messrs De Niro and Hoffman wither up and die in the scorching heat of it.

Even I, who yield to no one in my loathing for the “media” mentality, find this to be rather an example of that mentality than a satire of it. Occasionally there are chuckles to be had out of it, as when we see and hear Willie Nelson’s specially commissioned and ludicrously schmalzy war song, like a commercial jingle run amok, in which a chorus of studio musicians sing, sobbingly, about “The American Dream.” But nowhere else in the picture is there any corrective to this bogus emotionalism. Even in L.A. Confidential some of the bad guys get their comeuppance. This is a movie for people who are ready to cash in their chips and move to hell.

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