“54, 40 or fight. What does that mean?…Remember the Maine…Tippecanoe and Tyler, too…They’re war slogans Mr. Motss. We remember the slogans, we can’t even remember the fucking wars. Y’know why? Cause it’s show business. That’s why I’m here. Naked girl, covered in Napalm. Five marines Raising the Flag, Mount Suribachi. V for Victory, Y’remember the picture, fifty years from now, they’ll have forgotten the war. Gulf War? Smart bomb, falling down a chimney. Twenty-five-hundred missions a day, 100 days, one video of one bomb Mr. Motss. The American people bought that war.” -Conrad Brean
Wag the Dog is a wonderfully cynical little film that manages to entirely side step issues of left and right and stab right at the heart of modern politics. If our entire connection with the reality of politics is via the media, if politics is divorced from our real worlds to the point that we only interact with it via that terrible little box, truth becomes a frighteningly subjective concept. We all sometimes have that feeling that it’s all a show, an elaborate sleight of hand by master manipulators.
The film opens with a President being caught offscreen with an underage girl just two weeks before reelection. Scandal rears as the media sniffs blood, and the task of making things right falls to Conrad Brean, played with a world weary bullheadedness by Robert De Niro. Brean takes no time at all to come up with the solution: invent a fictional crisis and war with Albania. Create a narrative so compelling that the media just has to chase that instead of the scandal. He brings in legendary and eccentric Hollywood producer Stanley Motss, played by Dustin Hoffman with echoes of Rainman’s eccentric weirdness. There’s a sense that this scenario has been rolled around in Brean’s head for years, that it’s been gestating there, waiting for the precise opportunity that would let him attempt the grift of a life time.
A hell of a supporting cast fills out the assorted irregulars. Anne Heche, pre-tabloid breakdowns, is the voice of the idealist, dragged along on the con even though she actually believes the system should work. William Macy is the CIA man, standing behind creaky old principles made irrelevant by a world of media. Why use operatives to find information when you can just make the information that you want? Woody Harrelson channels Mickey Knox in full-on creepy deranged hick mode. Even Denis Leary and Willie Nelson are in the mix.
The film’s brilliance is in putting the audience on the side of those manipulators, gleeful con-men spinning lie after lie in more and more complexity. There’s a joy in tricking people, in being the smartest guys in the room. It’s Project Mayhem waged on behalf of the system instead of against it, it’s essentially a heist film, in which the MacGuffin being stolen is not a stack of valuables but the perception of reality. The tension of the story is never in whether the President will get away with the scandal and be re-elected, but if Brean and Motss can stay one step ahead of their own collapsing lies. “This is nothing,” Motss repeats like a mantra as complications pile up, the professional liar telling unexpected truth: everything they do is nothing, substance free illusions spun out of thin air.
Not an ounce of politics infects this film about politics. Not a hint at the ideological leanings of the political players, their platforms, their policies. It’s a measure of the irrelevancy of politics to the game that every trick they pull works regardless of whose benefit it’s for. Substance is completely independent from the soundbites. Brean is a closet fascist, Motss reviled as a Hollywood socialist.
Of course, the ending makes the film, breaks the comedy open on the concrete, brings home the simple conclusion that without accountability there’s only one destination regardless of the politics. Does it matter that the election is stolen with tricks instead of guns or lawyers? A nod, an execution. Third world hovel or sleek skyscraper, if there are bodies in the basement, it’s the same form of government no matter how pretty it looks.
Thirteen years down the road, Wag the Dog is for all its cynicism, a depressingly naive film. It speculates on the invention of a war to distract the public long enough to ride a scandal through an election. But that presumes the minimal ethical standard of preferring a fake war to a real one. Who needs to bother with CGI, actors and sound stages when you can just start dropping real bombs? Why bother lying about an entire war when you can just say that the bastards had it coming? The most terrifying thing about politics is not that it’s all lies. If that was the case, we’d be safe, the fictions would be bounded in the fictions. The terrifying thing is that the lies are conjoined to the truth so that our fictions govern our realities. We would be so lucky if the tail’s ambition stopped at merely wagging the dog.
“Politics is a pendulum whose swings between anarchy and tyranny are fueled by perpetually rejuvenated illusions.” -Albert Einstein
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.