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After being caught in a scandalous situation days before the election, the president does not seem to have much of a chance of being re-elected. One of his advisers contacts a top Hollywood producer in order to manufacture a war in Albania that the president can heroically end, all through mass media. Written by
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Hollywood is sometimes able to produce satirical films that, in retrospect, appear to predict future developments in American politics. `Being There', the story of a simple man whose homespun philosophy is taken for profound wisdom and who, as a result, becomes a candidate for President, may look like a satire on the Reagan administration, but in fact it was actually released in 1979, during the Carter years. `Dave', which features a womanising President called Bill whose marriage is in trouble because of his adulterous relationships and his trimming of his radical principles, came out in 1993, just after Bill Clinton had taken office. It must, however, have been planned well in advance and was presumably not actually intended as anti-Clinton satire, but that is how it tends to come across today.
`Wag the Dog' is another film that proves to have been unintentionally prophetic. Shortly before an election, the President is embroiled in a potentially explosive sex scandal which threatens to end his presidency in disgrace. In order to distract the public's attention, his advisers concoct a wholly fictitious military crisis in the Balkans and hire a Hollywood producer to provide the necessary harrowing footage of war scenes. When the Albanian government protest that their country is not in fact at war, the aides present this as a triumph of American diplomacy that has averted the threatened crisis, and, in order to keep the affair in the public's mind, concoct a further sub-plot involving a supposed military hero (in real life a convicted rapist in a military prison) held prisoner by a rebel faction.
All of this may seem very familiar, but bear in mind that this film was made in 1997, two years before President Clinton, faced with a potentially explosive sex scandal which for a time threatened to end his presidency in disgrace, took America to war over a crisis in the Balkans. At least he didn't need to concoct a fictitious war. The parallels with the more recent Iraq war are perhaps less exact, although the scenes involving the supposed hero `Old Shoe' were strongly reminiscent of the ballyhoo surrounding Private Jessica Lynch.
Like `Being There', `Wag the Dog' is not, of course, a work of social realism. In real life, a simpleton like Chance could not become President without being found out, and no administration could actually get away with inventing a bogus war. (That's why they have to provide real ones). In order to make a satirical point, both films exaggerate prevalent tendencies in modern political life. `Being There', among other things, is about self-deception- Chance never pretends to be anything he is not, but those around him deceive themselves by seeing him as what they want him to be. `Wag the Dog', on the other hand, is about political `spin' and the deliberate deception of the public. Politicians try and deceive as many of the people for as much of the time as they think they can get away with, and the media will go along with such deception for as long as it is in their interest.
`Wag the Dog' has some sharp points to make, and there is a very good performance from Dustin Hoffman as the Hollywood producer Stanley Motss. Motss is recognisably suffering from status anxiety in its most acute form- the form that afflicts the brilliantly successful and wealthy man who still feels undervalued by society and will do anything, however unethical or even dangerous to his own safety, to win public recognition. (He complains that there is no Academy Award specifically for producers, ignoring the fact that one is not needed because the producer traditionally receives the Best Picture award).
Despite that, however, I felt that the film as a whole was not as sharp or as funny as it could have been. I think the reason is that it is basically a one-joke film; once the war story has been exploded, the plot tends to lose direction. The idea of concocting a wholly bogus war is a brilliantly surreal satirical conceit; the idea of concocting a bogus hostage drama, although more inherently plausible, lacks the same inventiveness, so the `Old Shoe' scenes come as something of an anti-climax after what has gone before. I felt that Robert de Niro as the presidential aide Conrad Brean was less effective than Hoffman; I have never thought that comedy is his forte and that he is at his best in serious roles. (I may be judging unfairly, as there are several of his comedies that I have not seen). I also felt that it was a mistake not to show the President in the film- this may not be a realistic film, but the idea that a spin doctor could create a fictitious war without even the President being aware of what is going on strains credibility past its limits. Moreover, as we found out with Nixon and his attempted cover-up of the Watergate affair, the culture of spin involves our elected leaders themselves, not just members of their staff. Overall the film had its moments but could have been better. 6/10.
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