WAG THE DOG - Producing is Thinking Ahead
Wag the Dog remains a relevant bit of political satire, but it’s also a great examination about the art of production.
Wag the Dog
Release Date: December 25th, 1997
Date of My First Viewing: September 25th, 2019
“You don’t put Jaws in the first reel of the movie.”
Wag the Dog, the 1997 political satire from Barry Levinson, is full of great quotes about film-making and producing, but this one stood out above the rest. Maybe it’s because Jaws is one of my all-time favorite films, or maybe it’s because the quote goes beyond the worlds of cinema and production. It’d be foolish to give away the biggest draw in a situation right out of the gate, whether it’s a movie about a hungry shark or an attempt by the President of the United States to sweep a scandal under the rug. Every plan needs to follow an act structure and have a satisfying ending. A catchy song helps as well.
Even though I try not to get political with this site, it’d be foolish for me to completely ignore the utter circus that is American politics. I was looking for a movie to watch on a day when an informal impeachment inquiry was decided on against the former reality television participant occupying the White House, and, well, forgive me for going with the obvious choice of Wag the Dog. This is a movie that would have been in my wheel-house when it was released. I was in high school at the time and fancied myself as someone keen on politics and current events.
I should have been drawn to a movie that had strong satirical implications to the Clinton presidency, but, alas, I let the film slip through the cracks. Now I was aware of the film and what the general idea was all about. What I didn’t realize, though, was that it was a hilariously twisted tale about the plight of a top-level producer who finally gets a project befitting of his talents and abilities. Producing a war and generating the desired response from the American people is way more challenging and satisfying than producing a blockbuster action film.
For those who might not be aware of the plot, let’s go ahead and get that out of the way. The nameless and faceless President of the United States gets accused of sexual misconduct with a teenage Firefly girl. In comes Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) to work with top aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) to soften the impact because, oh yeah, the election is in less than two weeks. To deflect attention away from the allegations, Brean employs the help of producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman) to use develop and execute a fictional war against Albania. Once the CIA catches wind of the hoax and tries to bring it to an end, Brean, Motts, and Ames take things even further by constructing the story of a missing war hero. Things snowball from there in hilarious ways.
Wag the Dog will forever be a film that’s easy to reference when a political crisis happens, and something “suddenly” comes up to get us all nice and distracted. I mean I think the bulk of us are expecting that to be the case any day now. Gaslighting the population is now the standard operating procedure, and it’s even easier with social media, something that would have presented a whole new level of opportunities and challenges had it been around in the time Wag the Dog was being produced. I’m sure every review or analysis of this film takes that direction. That is why I want to focus on what the film says about the art of producing and creating because Wag the Dog is just as much about that as it is about political manipulation.
While the film starts with the idea that Brean is going to be the focus of the film, especially as he casually drops his extensive history of political fixing, the shift quickly turns to the character of Motts. Hoffman plays him brilliantly as a producer that rises to the challenge. He gets to produce the ultimate blockbuster in a work of fiction that will determine the leader of the free world. Motts revels in the opportunity and no setback or challenge is too big for his goal to see things to the finish line. A producer really is like the president of a movie, and the film establishes that parallel when Motts really gets into the knack of the hoax.
Some of the film’s best scenes involve Motts working with his team to construct all the backstory elements of the ruse and Motts dealing with the hiccups the ruse brings to the table. As someone who is old enough to remember the “Voices that Care” craze during the Gulf War, I was howling when that aspect was used, and a character played by Willie Nelson was behind it. I was howling even more when the second act of the hoax, the one involving the missing solider, comes into play because that’s when things really start to go to hell. Motts, though, seems to relish in every fire that develops and every opportunity to extinguish the flames. This is where the line about Jaws comes into play. Everyone else is looking at the short term while Motts sees the long and extend play at hand.
Motts is driven by his desire to show what a producer does and get the credit he thinks he deserves. This, of course, doesn’t mesh with Brean’s intentions. The building conflict between the two is slowly developed and ends up reaching a rather dark but expected conclusion. Brean is appreciative of Motts’ abilities and results, but there’s a definite line since this is the political world. Motts works in a world of fiction. Brean works in the world of reality. The two worlds get meshed together, but there remains a stark difference.
Wag the Dog is quite a funny film as it pulls no punches about what the American population will believe. It’s also a rather cautionary tale that still holds a great deal of weight, especially in the hellscape of our current political reality. On top of all that, the film serves as an exploration of what happens when a talented and driven individual finally gets an outlet equal to their talents. I might be reading too much into this aspect of the film, but everyone else has already read too much into the political hoax aspect. I mean I had to find an angle.