Wag the Dog

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After being caught in a sex scandal days before the election, the president does not seem to have much of a chance of being re-elected. A top spin doctor (Robert De Niro) is brought in, and he in turn calls on a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to help save the election.

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Wag The Dog is a 1997 black comedy produced and directed by Barry Levinson, also the director of Diner (1982), The Natural (1984) Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988, which earned him an Academy Award for best director), Bugsy (1991), and Sleepers (1996), among others.

The film was released one month before the outbreak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the subsequent bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton administration, which prompted easy comparisons between the film and reality. It also makes several references to Grenada, as an example of how effortlessly the powers-that-be can whip up patriotic frenzy.

DeNiro plays Conrad Brean, a Mr. Fixit spin doctor who has masterminded a lot of shady scenarios to cover for political shenanigans. He has a motto: “To change the story, change the lead.” To distract the press from the presidential sex scandal, he advises extending a presidential trip to Asia, while issuing official denials that the new B-3 bomber is being activated ahead of schedule. “But there is no B-3 bomber,” he’s told. “Perfect! Deny it even exists!” Meanwhile, he cooks up a phony international crisis with Albania.

Adapted from Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero, this is intended as an airy political comedy. Despite the large amount of talent involved, it feels a bit lazy on Levinson’s part, and slides into a series of soft, extended skits on engineering a media war and marketing patriotism. But even if it is not the greatest cinematic feat, the subject matter and themes are spot-on and increasing relevant in our current political climate.

The satire (is it a farce or a tragedy?) mixes together two of America’s most influential constituencies — the overlapping power elites of Washington and Hollywood. Their’s is a long and complex history, forming what has become the unique brand of modern American propaganda. Anyone who would be inherently interested in this history is unlikely to be surprised by this film — it’s just too close to reality.

To ‘wag the dog’ means to purposely divert attention from what would otherwise be of greater importance. By doing so, the lesser-significant event is catapulted into the limelight, drowning proper attention to what was originally the more important issue. “Why does a dog wag its tail?” the spin doctor asks. “Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail was smarter, it would wag the dog.” In this world, the tail is smarter, and we, the voters, are the dog.

Director: Barry Levinson

Cinematographer: Robert Richardson

Editor:  Stu Linder

Writers: Hilary Henkin and David Mamet

Music: Mark Knopfler

Actor: Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy

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