I’m just going to come right out and say it: Wag The Dog (1997) is one of the best movies out there. This little master piece (run time: 97 minutes) by Barry Levinson is loosely based on the book “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart and was designed to make you rethink everything you believe about the media and politics.
It’s the story of what happens when the sitting American president is accused of sexual misconduct 11 days before elections, and “Mr fix-it” Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is brought in to divert the public’s attention. How does he do this? By having a war, of course. (“What war? There is no war.” “Exactly.”) A fake war with Albania, in fact. (“Albania? Why?” “Why not? What do you know about ’em?” “Nothing.” “Precisely.”)
So there is no war, but they will sell the appearance of one to the media anyway. And that is where Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) and his team get involved, because as Brean says: “War is show business.” It’s not about the truth, but about what you believe, and what better way to make people believe something than to show them on television.
The plot is ludicrous and fast-paced and the movie is very dialogue heavy, making it almost impossible to watch casually. If you did, you would miss half the subtle jokes aimed at your own ignorance and gullibility and it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
Every step of the way you can see Brean and Motss pulling at everyone’s strings. The ease with which they come up with new ‘plot twists’ to keep the story going (“We’ve got a war, we forgot the hero!”) will make you giggle, and then it will make you wonder. Is it really that easy? Do politicians and spin doctors really have that much influence? Or is this all just satire?
This movie won’t offer you the answer, but it certainly holds up a mirror to our fad culture. Whether it’s the creation of a Band Aid-like song, the hyping of a slogan (“courage, mom”), or the conception of a war hero, everyone will recognise at least one of these patterns of media manipulation. They are popular band wagons we are all too happy to jump on because they are marketed as patriotic or charitable. Maybe that’s disconcerting, but maybe it’s also something we just can’t avoid.
All you will really know by the end of this movie is that it can’t hurt to be a bit sceptical, and that regardless of what is or isn’t true, if there is or isn’t a war, at least it’s got nothing to do with the B3 bomber.
Watch the trailer for Wag the Dog here: