In 1990s old adage about life imitating art has been illustrated by many examples of certain real life events strikingly resembling scenes, situations and plots of certain Hollywood films. Wag the Dog, 1997 political satire directed by Barry Levinson, was often mentioned as the best of those examples. The film premiered almost at the same time as the events resembling its plot began to unravel in the real world. In next year or so, Wag the Dog led many to remember another old adage, this time about history being repeated. Only this time the old adage became reality in reverse - what was farce in Hollywood film later became tragedy in real life.
The script by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, loosely based on Larry Beinhart's satirical book American Hero, has plot that starts few weeks before US presidential elections. Incumbent President has just been caught in compromising situation with underage girl and his staff, led by neurotic Winnifred Ames (played by Anne Heche), is faced with plummeting poll numbers and certain defeat. The rescue comes in the form of Conrad Brean (played by Robert de Niro), mysterious Washington insider specialised in saving political careers through media manipulation. This problem, however, requires radical solution - the only way to extinguish sex scandal is to make American public worry about something else instead and the war is distraction. The only snag is that low-intensity conflicts can't be escalated into wars on such short notice. Brean comes with an idea of literally staging phoney war, choosing Albania - small, distant, insignificant country few people in America have heard of - as a fictional threat to American security. Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (played by Dustin Hoffman) is hired to manufacture the illusion and he does it by writing tearful speeches, shooting images of burnt Albanian villages and even produces war's theme song. The ruse works, President's popularity is again climbing and any attempt to expose the hoax is countered with even more elaborate media manipulation. The last of those is touching story about Sergeant William Schumann (played by Woody Harrelson) who must be rescued from captivity.
The events after 1998 premiere of Wag the Dog have frightening resemblance to the scenario presented in the film. US President, embattled with sex scandal, tried to shift public attention by launching series of military actions against the countries few Americans had heard of or cared for. By morbid coincidence, last such action was in place populated by ethnic Albanians and splendid little war was justified with sometimes exaggerated stories about rape, plunder and mass genocide directed against helpless civilians. That action was conducted safely from the air in order to minimise any chance of body bags returning home and thus destroying image of "splendid little war". The only exception came with three US servicemen making the wrong turn and ending on the wrong side of border, but it soon turned out into another nation rallying sob story about American heroes in captivity. And when the aim of such wars were achieved, they were quietly extinguished, sometimes even left unfinished and public was never again reminded of their very existence. In Wag the Dog all that was farce, but for shepherds in Pakistan, medicine factory workers in Sudan, some unfortunate Iraqis, refugees stranded on Kosovo-Macedonian border or unfortunate make-up artists in Belgrade television studio that was grittiest possible reality. Needless to say, some people couldn't fail noticing similarity between the film and real life and some even used it in their own propaganda war. During the bombardment of Serbia, Milošević's state television was constantly playing that film in order to convince Serbian people what the war was really about. Film about media manipulation being used by media institution notorious for manipulating truth was just one of macabre ironies of Wag the Dog.
Wag the Dog, even when it is viewed without any thought of the events that gave it prophetic dimension, is very relevant film for the world today and has universal importance. More than many other films in recent memory it tells about the way media dominate over any other force in the world, including governments and political establishment. With liberal democracy and capitalism being presented as the only alternatives for humanity, the ideological differences between various political options have blurred and politics became part of show business. Quiet and effective diplomatic solutions are disregarded in favour of aggressive actions that could look good in front of cameras; military strategies and tactics that make war look like PG-rated video-game are preferable to those requiring boots on the ground and risk of body bags on television. Finally, even this year's presidential election in USA is more about image than about issues; for the large part of electorate the only motivation for going to polls is whether they can or not stand the sight of certain face in White House.
Wag the Dog could have been great film, and not only because of its important subject and brave approach of film makers. The script was written by David Mamet, one of America's most respected playwrights. The cast includes such giants of American acting as Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman. Both men are very effective in their roles, more than it is usual for them in most of 1990s Hollywood productions. Music soundtrack is provided by Mark Knopfler with sad tones that underline blackness in this black comedy. Unfortunately, the director Barry Levinson again shows his tendency to torpedo quality material with poor pacing. The film is most effective at the beginning, when the characters are devising ruse. The satirical stabs are most severe, dialogue is crisper and situations are funny. As the ending approaches, Levinson makes a lot of it look repetitive and rather predictable ending comes as a relief for increasingly impatient audience. Yet, despite those flaws, Wag the Dog still represents one fine piece of cinema and, as the events in today's world show, very relevant not only for 1990s but also for generations to come.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on March 3rd 2004)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/586-wag-the-dog