Tuesday, December 14, 2010

WAG THE DOG (1997): Politics as Usual

Contrary to assertions made in the movie Wag the Dog, politicians have not been able to exploit the media to advance their own careers to the degree that is alleged here.  Probably no time in history has the general public been more convinced that all politicians are liars.  The reason why we choose one politician over the other isn’t because we are moved by their eloquence.  Rather we are convinced that one candidate is as big of a buffoon as the other, and we cast our ballots with the trepidation and the hope that the individual we vote for might only be moderately foolish.  Neither Washington nor Jefferson had a camera constantly following them around, and thus they were able to preserve their dignity.  The media was still sensitive enough at the time of Franklin Roosevelt to not dwell on the President’s inability to walk.  It still was discrete enough in 1960 to not publish all of the information it could get its hands on regarding John F. Kennedy’s infidelities.  If Abraham Lincoln had been under the extreme scrutiny that any current politician must endure, probably no biography by Carl Sandburg, which ultimately was a piece of fluff, would ever have been published about the great President.
“War is showbiz,” says the Robert De Niro character in Wag the Dog and he might be right.  When Henry Kissinger stated shortly before the 1972 election that “[W]e believe that peace is at hand,” the media never asked for details.  Nixon then won by a landslide, and the Viet Nam War went on for another three years.  Robert De Niro plays the spin-doctor named Conrad Brean, who is summoned because the President, eleven days prior to reelection, is caught up in a sex scandal.  De Niro needs a strategy to detract the voters’ attention away from this scandal.  He hires on Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a famous Hollywood movie producer, to film a fictional war between the United States and Albania to get the voters behind the President.  For the next eleven days, it then becomes a matter of which candidate’s committee can string out the more extravagant lie.  When the President’s opponent (Craig T. Nelson) convinces the public that the war is over, the committee to reelect the President has to come up with a new strategy.  In comes William Shuman (Woody Harrelson), who is hired on to pretend that he is a soldier who has been abducted by the Albanians.  Shuman, or the “Old Shoe,” as he is affectionately nicknamed, was allegedly left behind when the war was ended and taken prisoner.  Shuman then becomes a center of the media campaign to return him home.  However, there are a couple of problems.  Conrad had to hire Shuman from prison to avoid anyone discovering where he actually came from.  And two, Shuman was a felon who was convicted for raping a nun.  Upon his staged return to the states, Shuman once again goes crazy, tries to rape a young farm girl and gets himself shot to death by the enraged father.  So instead of a hero’s welcome, a state funeral is held.  In any case, the President’s approval rating shoots up to 89 percent, and he’s virtually assured reelection.
Now Stanley, the movie producer, who has never won an academy award, is happy with the result until he sees some movie commentators crediting the makers of the President’s political commercials for the President’s popularity.  Stanley is outraged and wants it known that he was the one primarily responsible.  Conrad, knowing that this information can never be revealed, then is forced to take actions to have the movie producer removed.  A few days later, a news story appears that this same producer has suffered a massive heart attack.  Finally, it is announced that an Albanian sponsored group has committed a terrorist attack, and therefore the war really had not ended.
Lest anyone watching this movie feels superior because of the insight that they have gained, it would probably be best to remind those that there is nothing new being said here.  Before Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba, newspaperman William Randolph Hearst allegedly said to artist Frederic Remington, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”  We don’t actually know if Hearst had anything more to do with the starting of the Spanish American War than did the killing of 246 marines have anything to do with the invasion of Grenada (as is asserted in Wag the Dog).*  If Wag the Dog is to be believed, real life people are actually moved to tears when watching a President give his address to the nation.  I’ve never actually seen this occur.  I have seen people moved to tears about something a politician said decades or more ago, but even in those cases the reaction would have been very different if that politician had actually appeared on television.  Wag the Dog is supposed to be about how gullible we are for taking our beliefs so seriously because our beliefs are based on little of substance.  In other words, Wag the Dog will only be entertaining for those who do not understand that the movie is a spoof, and for those audience members who do not understand that the spoof is spoofing them.  In today’s world, hopefully that audience will be small.
Wag the Dog, of course, borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  That the excuse for going to nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove is because of the fluoridation of water (an obvious Communist plot) is about as likely as going to war with Albania because of a sex scandal.  True, when Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964, paranoia was such that we still had the existence of bomb shelters stocked full of canned food so that we could live underground for the next fifty years in the case of a nuclear attack.  Though this whole mindset may have seemed like the ultimate in naiveté, one only needs to remember that there was a very real fear that the world was going to be obliterated by two superpowers that had nuclear missiles aimed at each other.  Dr. Strangelove was not talking down to its audience.  When Wag the Dog came out in 1997, articles of impeachment had been filed against President Clinton for a sex scandal at approximately the same time that the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was being bombed.  I suppose the makers of the film were making the obvious implication that the antics of the Clinton’ administration was just one example among many how politicians fool the public.  Yet the actual war in Bosnia was in response to ethnic cleansing being performed at the behest of the Serbians, and I don’t think the atrocities were made-up to alleviate the burdens of a beleaguered President.  Allegedly, Director Barry Levinson based the film upon an unsubstantiated rumor that George Bush, Sr., engaged America in the Gulf War to boost his own popularity.  So the story goes, Levinson left out all real names and shifted the time frame to avoid the appearances of being a nutcase.  I don’t suppose Levinson or Larry Beinhart, who wrote the book American Hero upon which the film Wag the Dog is based, could actually fathom that some people might be outraged that Saddam used poison gas on the Kurdish people – since the Gulf War “obviously” was a media invention.
Maybe moviegoers do love watching this kind of intrigue played out on the big screen because it makes us believe that what is going on behind the scenes is more interesting than it really is.  (Start with the premise that contemporary viewers can identify, throw in some meaty consequences, and toss in a number of witty lines by the characters, and your movie will go to the top of the box offices.)  And maybe reviewers love political movies because it gives them the pretense of sounding intelligent when discussing it.  Unfortunately, we do hear a lot of things spoken by viewers and critics alike where politics is concerned that don’t need to be said.**  (For example, no one needs to be told that supporters of President Bush will fail to think highly of Fahrenheit 911 - yet I’ve been told this many times.)  It probably would be more productive if the reviewers focused on the slant that every moviemaker thwarts upon us.  Movies like All the President’s Men or JFK or Nixon or Munich were all the products of a few individuals who had their own exposé to present.  Yet very seldom are any of these movies made well enough that it actually has any long lasting impact upon the public.  For every movie like All the King’s Men starring Broderick Crawford, we have dozens of movies like Red Dawn or The Green Berets that are laughable.

Wag the Tail has a few lines that are amusing, but I can’t get excited with it nor offended by it overall.  I could see the same gag played out in a Saturday Night Live skit with Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, William Macy and Ann Heche making guest appearances.  Throwing it on a movie screen gives it more notice in the media and a greater appearance of relevance.  The lines spoken by the characters undoubtedly resemble the rhetoric of politicians.  We have to “go to war to preserve our way of life,” or we “don’t change horses in mid-stream” seem perfectly credible in the mouths of candidates at a Republican or Democratic National Convention.  That doesn’t mean we buy into it.
* Sometimes I’m guilty of overstating my argument and I ask the pardon of my reader.  Be that as it may, I’d rather be guilty of saying too much than stating too little.  Perhaps Hearst really did have something to do with starting the war.  I don’t mean to imply that the politicians have never used the media for their own purposes, or that they will not do it again sometime in the future.  However, that’s different than saying we have not progressed.  Washington and Jefferson were slave-owners.  Even after the time of Lincoln, we saw the rise of General George Armstrong Custer and his brand of genocide in the American West.  And under the administration of FDR, we still lived in a segregated society.  If we continue being guilty of electing miscreants to the office for all of the wrong reasons, as is alleged in Wag the Dog, at least we the public don’t tolerate to the same degree the kind of behavior that went on 150 years ago.
** If I was intelligent and rich enough, I’d move away to some place where I would never have to speak of politics again.  Nothing distresses me more than to be cornered by some maniac and asked to deliver an opinion upon some political issue that the other person hopes (and practically demands) will be in agreement with their own.  Super Bowl XXV was one of the closest championship games in NFL history.  It all came down to a last minute field goal attempt by the Buffalo Bills (which, alas, they missed).  But while I was watching the game in the fourth quarter, greatly looking forward to seeing which team would win the world championship, someone turned to me and asked what I thought of the issue of abortion.  I probably will never understand why they couldn’t have waited for a bit more opportune moment to ask about it.  I am now traumatized, and ever since that time I have become extremely thin-skinned anytime someone asks me a political question.
May 22, 2007 
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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