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Wag the Dog

by John Denvir, USF Law School (February 1998)

Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog is a cynical little gem. Its target is the American political system as it has evolved in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton era— what we might call the post-democratic era in American politics. The focus on the undermining of democratic ideals reminds us of Frank Capra’s classic Meet John Doe, but while Capra’s vehicle was melodrama, Levinson’s weapon is black comedy. He is aided by a brilliant script by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet.

The plot revolves around the efforts of "spinmaster" Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro) to respond to a late-breaking story that the President of the United States has been accused of fondling a visiting girl scout in the oval office. (I’m not kidding! ) Brean decides to divert the public’s attention from his client’s personal problems by providing the American public with a television spectacle—a war which only takes place on television. He then enlists the services of Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman) to "produce" the war—or "pageant" as they prefer to call it.

The rest of the movie shows us how Hollywood produces a war with Albania. It is both hilarious and chilling. The most memorable (and instructive) scene shows us how computer technology can transform an American actress holding a bag of tortilla chips on a sound stage into an Albanian maiden escaping with her calico kitten from a bombed-out city as victims scream and sirens wail. But then Motts decides he needs a bridge to symbolize her crossing over to safety; a few keys are clicked and the bridge appears. The President insists on a white kitten; the computer transforms the calico kitty to a white one. Within hours television networks are playing and replaying this fiction as fast-breaking news.

In Meet John Doe there are heroes and villains, but in Wag the Dog, such concepts are irrelevant. Now we only have "production values." Politics is just one more branch of "show business." As Hoffman’s Motts puts it, the change from being movie producer to president would be "just a change of wardrobe." DeNiro and Hoffman are neither liberals nor conservatives; they’re professionals whose jobs (as Motts again puts it) are to create things which are "l00% fake but appear honest." At one point, a member of the working group which is busy shaping American foreign policy decides to ask each member of the group if he or she votes. They all reply no. Motts adds that he does vote for the academy awards. Like I said—it's the post democratic era of American politics.

Hoffman’s performance ranks with his best in movies such as Midnight Cowboy and Tootsie. He shows the narcissistic Motts to be a very ordinary, even boring, man in most aspects of his life. His conversations are collages of self-congratulatory anecdotes and moral cliches. Yet when he starts to work with a "story line", he is nothing less than a genius. This reminds me of the many mutant geniuses of the late twentieth Century—from Stephen Spielberg to Bill Gates.

I won’t divulge the ending, but it’s impressive that Levinson never tries to sweeten his message with a "romantic angle" or a contrived happy ending. Typical of the movie’s bite is a scene in which Motts responds to a criticism of a television speech he has written for the President. The President thinks it's "corny." Motts replies, "of course, it’s corny." It's for an American audience. He then insists on having 30 secretaries listen to him read the speech; he reduces them all to tears. Like I said- it’s a black comedy.

Of course, the question remains how "real" the movie is. Could it actually happen? The dialogue suggests that it could, pointing to how quickly the phony war in Grenada followed the deaths of 246 marines in Beirut and how Americans were sold the Gulf War by repeated showings of a "smart" bomb descending a smoke stack in Iraq. Of course, we know it couldn’t happen here. Still I can’t help happening to notice that along with headlines in The New York Times about Clinton’s sexual problems we also see small stories in the back pages saying that the U.S. is "losing patience" with Saddam Hussein. A war with Iraq? You read it here first.

John DenvirJohn Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores or through


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