Ronald Regan famously had a plaque in the oval office that said ‘a man can go far in life if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit. In Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, the eccentric producer – played by Dustin Hoffman – tasked with fooling the media by creating a fake war for the President, learns this lesson the hard way, but not –thankfully – before a few laughs. The subject matter shifts back and forth from implausible hilarity to blunt analysis of our political system.  It’s very surreal at times to watch, especially when one considers the events that this too-real-for-comfort black comedy foreshadows. The film, probably created to be comedic dramatization of a possibility, became a mirror of what might have been going on at the end of the both Clinton and Bush administrations.   If only reality was full of such characters – George Bush need not apply.

The films’ plot revolves around a motley crew of film producers, song writers, and presidential aides, all brought together and spearheaded by a mysterious ‘spin doctor’, (played by Robert Deniro) and tasked with the dilemma of keeping the president’s sexual affairs with a firefly girl (think girl-scout) out of the media’s attention for 11 days till his expected re-election. The group comes off as some satirical jab at an Oceans 11 inspired ‘super-team’. The spin doctor cooks up a plan for a fake war with Albania to buy the president time till his upcoming election, and sets out to stretch it out as long as possible with the help of a overzealous producer (played by Dustin Hoffman). The plot takes some comedic liberties in the second half reminding us of the implausibility of the premise – at least in its presented execution – and of the fact that this is at heart a black comedy and not a ‘serious’ look at politics and the media in America. Taking that into consideration, the second half of the film turns up the wackiness to an 11 when the group meets the ‘fake’ MIA soldier they created (played by Woody Harleson), find -out that he has spent the last 12 years incarcerated in a military prison and is on heavy duty psychotics, and subsequently is gets into a ridiculous plane crash. All – including the schizo Harleson – manage to get away unscathed. The film by is now in nearly full throttle Seinfeld inspired comedy.

The chilling thing is how possible the idea of it all is. Certainly not in the comedic and often hyperbolic direction that this particular film took, but in the little things that the movie suggests: exacerbating armed conflict to lessen the importance of an important issue, reporting news that has no factual merit, and most importantly, cronyism that goes all the way to Hollywood and back. President Clinton’s administration dealt with the very issue presented in the film only a year after its release. What’s more is that there was in fact a conflict involving ethnic Albanians suffering genocide in Serbia in 1999, a year after the Lewinsky trial. In the same year President Clinton also attempted the ‘neutralize’ Osama bin Laden with U.S. cruise missiles launched towards terrorist training camps.

Clinton recovered from the scandal, partially because of the media’s sympathy, and partially because there were pressing matters at hand that ‘trumped’ his little sexual fiasco. Unfortunately we never meet the president in the film and therefore can’t have much sympathy for him – the humorous angle of the film wouldn’t allow for much sympathy if the film makers would give an objective portrayal. More so one can’t help grow disdain for the guy whenever the film shows an election commercial imploring the American public to not ‘change horses mid-stream’. Even the president’s own people acknowledge the cringe worthy and unwitting self-caricatures passed off as campaign ads. The president is, in fact, presented very much in the vein of Seinfeld’s George Steinbrenner, reduced to being a voice and a back of the head.

Journalists along with lawyers are considered to be the least trustworthy individuals, sometimes for good reasons – read: Jayson Blair, Steven Glass, and some of those who call themselves ‘fair and balanced’. Wag the Dog asks the viewers to take it a step further and think about the film industry and public relations representatives as other sources of influence and deception.  Regan himself was an actor, his political poise and manner of speaking surely enhanced by his acting experience. After all, we think better of well spoken presidents (JFK, Reagan, and Clinton) even if their time in office is marked by controversy. Perhaps the media doesn’t create our infatuations with powerful people but instead proliferates ideas created by someone else. At one point in the film Dustin Hoffman asks Robert Deniro, “Why are you doing this for the president?” to which there is no response. That is both paradoxically a weakness of the film’s realism and the strength of its argument: sometimes we don’t really know who or what is behind the scenes or why they are there. Particularly after President Bush’s two terms, where the press almost unilaterally supported Bush’s plan to invade Iraq, people lost faith in the press and their reporting on politics. That is quite a harrowing statement.

The film ends with a grim reminder that the powers that be will have their way regardless of the parties involved. A news update comes on a television screen reporting that an Albanian terrorist group is claiming responsibility for an act of terrorism.  The humor suddenly abates and the mirage of a star studded cast acting out ridiculous situations becomes all too real.

People often remember Clinton’s presidency as a fairly successful one by its end and in that sense he very well could have wagged the dog.  By the end of George Bush’s second term many Americans lost their faith in both him and the press that failed to scrutinize him and his administration.  That turning point illustrates how the film’s message of the untouchable nature of backdoor politics isn’t quite realistic.  Still one can’t truly know if the dog wags its tail, the tail wags the dog, or if that the knowledge of either is only privy to some charismatic producer or mysterious spin doctor.  This film is perfect for any conspiracy theorist that needs a good hardy laugh.

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