Directed by Barry Levinson
Wag the Dog is fun, and it seemed like the people making it had fun. It’s a comedy that satirizes the media, politics and the way people consume media. In a sense it’s a story about “fake news,” made twenty years ago.
This is one of those high concept comedies, the appeal being the premise alone. Fortunately it’s a story filled out by talented actors and more than one-dimensional characters. I mean, how did this movie get Robert De Niro? This is like that point in De Niro’s career after his most well-known, complex roles and before all of the tepid, family friendly comedy roles.
Okay, so I guess it was five years before he gave up.
Wag the Dog could easily be one of those poorly-received, lazy comedies but it’s too smart for that and too self-aware. This is a story that knows exactly what it’s about, and it has fun tackling that subject. Robert De Niro plays a sort of publicist figure, brought in to help alleviate pressure on the president’s public image 11 days before an election.
The President, whom we never see distinctly and who looks like a Richard Nixon figure, has recently been accused of sexual advances on an underaged girl, something which is unusually heavy for a comedy like this, and Conrad Brean (De Niro) is brought in to fix his image. Brean’s ludicrous idea is to stage a fake war to dominate the news cycle, helping the collective short attention span of the public forget all about these allegations.
The president’s team is desperate, so they hop onboard Brean’s plan, which he doesn’t reveal in full immediately. He and a member of the President’s cabinet, Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), reach out to famed Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce the fictional war.
What follows is delightfully insane. Motss organizes a team of writers, actors and musicians to stage a war between the U.S. and Albania, and it is quickly all over the news. The movie is at its best in these moments, when the story commits itself to the intricacies of this plan. Motss has fun organizing it like a movie, and Brean stands by as the intimidating guy, making sure everyone knows they can never speak of this.
The idea of a fictional war calls back to the various conspiracy theories regarding famous events about which there is always someone claiming is a hoax. The most famous is the moon landing, an idea covered in 2016’s Operation Avalanche.
There are any number of ways the idea in Wag the Dog could go wrong. First the CIA tracks them down, but they are surprisingly amenable to Brean’s idea. The next day Brean and his team tune into the news to see that the President’s opposition, Senator John Neal (Craig T. Nelson) has announced the end of the war, thus playing the same game they are.
It’s at this point that the film elevates itself by committing to the satire. It’s not that our protagonists are the crazy ones, with a crazy idea in a normal world. They aren’t found out or taken down. Instead their opposition plays by the same rules, suggesting a more widespread subservience to public misinformation. It’s about what the public thinks instead of what’s true.
Frustrated that the war is over, Brean and Motss come up with “act 2.” They announce that a U.S. soldier named William Schumann (Woody Harrelson) is stuck behind enemy lines and that they must save him. With his songwriter (played by Willie Nelson), Motss constructs a narrative that makes Schumann a hero, all boiled down to a song titled “Old Shoe.”
They parade around Schumann’s image, wearing a sweater torn in such a way to allegedly form the morse code message, “Courage Mom,” and the country eats it up. The problem comes when they finally meet the real Schumann, a deranged convict who raped a nun.
Brean, Motss and Ames must again figure their way out of this one, something Motss takes pride in as a producer. When their plane crashes (that happens too), they stagger to a local market where Schumann goes after a farmer’s wife and is shot and killed. Perfect, they say, since they can use Schumann’s death as a moment of tragedy.
In the end, Motss gets fed up when Brean reminds him that this must all remain a secret. Though he claimed to be attracted to the challenge, Motss (who repeats that he has never won an Oscar) finally admits that he only wanted the credit of having pulled this off. Because Brean knows he can’t count on Motss’ silence, he has him killed. The movie then ends with Motss’ funeral and the news announcement that an Albanian terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for a recent bombing. It’s unclear if this is true or something else Motss’ produced before he died.
Wag the Dog feels like a mostly innocent comedy, but it’s also quite scathing. I like that word, scathing. It just feels right. It’s also the type of word that people use in place of many other words. If something is harsh or devastating or biting, then you use the word scathing.
Anyways, Wag the Dog has a lot to say, and it doesn’t really hold back. This is a comedy that lampoons (what I said about scathing can be said about lampoon too) the American public and the ways we fall for media tricks, whether their embellishments of the truth or outright lies. It also mocks politics, Hollywood and really both the people in power and the people under power. It also highlights the desperation of people wanting to hold onto whatever power they have.
Again, this is a comedy, but over the course of the story two people die, there is the allusion to the rape of a nun, a President likely made sexual advances on a minor, and it’s really just a bunch of people committed to the big lie. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also a bit frightening.
As someone on Brean’s team says,”people are driven by fear.” This message can be found in the likes of Brazil or in the justification that got us into the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. It’s also the reason Senator Joseph McCarthy found any attention in the fifties when he rode the wave of the Red Scare. Boy I don’t know why I seem to reference McCarthyism in every other movie review.
Up Next: The Dirty Dozen (1967), Lady Bird (2017), Lonely Are the Brave (1962)