CONSUMED WITHOUT REFLECTION, ‘Wag the Dog’ is a tongue-in-cheek political satire titillating enough to indulge in as an inside scoop yet cynical enough for audiences to preserve their sense of aloofness from ‘broken’ and ‘corrupt’ Washington. Its airy presumption and tone of a behind-the-scenes exposé aims to placate its audience even as it confirms their worst suspicions about politicians’ unscrupulous lust for power. If we’re all in on the joke then why not let it play itself out? But considered from a step back, ‘Wag the Dog’ is deeply mordant and perfectly symptomatic of all the ills it strives to expose, like a mirror against a reflecting pool. It’s a story easy to enjoy but hard to appreciate.
Pushed forward by David Mamet’s manic dialogue—parched dry humor buried several layers deep in blasé politicking—‘Wag the Dog’ quickly sketches out our premise: in the midst of a president’s reelection campaign he is accused of sexual misconduct towards a teenager girl, and calls in Conrad Brean, an unheralded but exquisitely capable spin doctor played by Robert De Niro, to set things aright. ‘Aright’ in this case means concocting a false war on terror in Albania to distract from the allegations back home until the election is won. Naturally. Brought in to manage his charade is Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), and together they orchestrate fake newsreels and promulgate concocted mantras (e.g. “there is no B3 bomber”) until the lie spreads wide enough to become truth.
Cinematographer Richard Robinson catalogues this progress from private to public chambers with ease, passing between the omniscient observer and more in situ framing that is appropriate for a movie about perception, cameras, and not-quite-fourth-wall-breaking subject matter. The range is wide, from washed out fisheyes stationed in upper corners of rooms like surveillance, journalistic pans at press conferences, or the hokey zooms used in campaign commercials constantly derided as ‘amateurism’ throughout the film. Caught up in its own narrative, ‘Wag the Dog’ at times plays itself so straight that the patriotic chorus singing to Willie Nelson’s conductor’s baton legitimately seems like an anthem pulled from a Special Televised Event in the wake of a national tragedy.
Helping somewhat to balance this smarting irony is the charismatic pairing of De Niro and Hoffman, each a powerful force but ably sharing of the spotlight. Director Barry Levinson gives them plenty of toys with which to play, from a swathe of recognizable cameos (Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, etc.) to coy costumes. In their idiosyncratic garb they resemble pontificating modern wizards—a double-breasted trenchcoat for the slogan-slinging Fad King, paisley scarves for Motss, frumpily rolled-up blue jeans, New England-style blazer, and a crumpled hat for Mr. Fix-It himself, Brean. The wardrobe choices give us easy cues to distinguish the behind-the-scenes Brean from the camera-ready glitz of Motss, but there is more at work here. Brean’s outfit is a costume of its own akin to Columbo or Inspector Clousou (who himself had a very similar hat), and though may not care about his appearance like the Hollywood types, it’s coded that he is no less astute and relevant an agent of fortune. This is made even more clear when he appears alongside Motss in Washington, both wearing overcoats, orange-tone scarves, and red neckties—just in each case Brean’s is the budget, unobtrusive pattern. Every soldier has his uniform to wear in the service of his country.
Thus employed they conspire up in their ivory redoubt, the environs without reflecting a coruscating alchemy—flashing lights poolside at Motss’ regal estate “bigger than the White House”, cameras looking up through the pool as if the players above were great titans in Olympus, pulling the strings of mortal lives with casual abandon. And then later, as the story collapses around them in a private jet back to Washington, accompanied by a delirious and paranoid schizophrenic they thought was a malleable war hero stand-in. “This is nothing,” Motss assures his cohorts. And to his credit, he delivers even unto death. William H. Macy, who appears briefly as a CIA agent, says that Mamet can spin off half a page of Shakespearian poetic dialogue, “like Titus Andronicus.” And it is perfectly true that Mamet has no reservations about ruthlessly disposing of characters, audience predilections be damned.
Macy’s own presence, though, is a strangely indulgent tangent that positions the CIA as antagonists of the president and briefly, quite briefly (our suspension of disbelief would tolerate nothing longer) as truth-seekers in a morass of obfuscation. The positioning doesn’t quite come through, and the quickly co-opted Macy ultimately serves as an opportunity for Brean to explain his worldview almost directly to the camera. And it is this:
Governments are self-perpetuating forces, concerned with their own immediate survival and legacy more than any lasting real benefit to their word. Much as the military generals in the Cold War used the threat of Mutually-Assured-Destruction as their raison d’etre, so have politics and media put themselves into similarly compromising states today. MAD becomes Mutually-Assured-Survival, each branch propping up the other with rotten timber. Thus the clattering footsteps of officials descending into the bowels of an unnamed ‘war room’ in Washington are now civilians, not generals, though their global machinations and utilitarian sense of sacrifice is the same. Meanwhile, above ground in the public arena, for all the moral outrage that might legitimately circle such a sex scandal, no actual conversation is had over the president’s policies, economic stewardship, etc. It’s almost as if the scandal the fixers don’t want their opponents to talk about is precisely the scandal the audience ends up focusing on, never thinking to inquire whether the president is any good at his actual job. And ‘Wag the Dog’ is one such scandalous misdirection—a made-up firework of a story that keeps eyes and minds away from more literal concerns in the tangible world.
And this is the trouble. What’s seen on television is received and believed, regardless of whether the media midwifes birthed it or saw it borne of others, once the fever begins to spread. Amidst the highly skeptical environment of modern news media and increasingly common revelations of electioneering, gerrymandering, wartime-profiteering, and shameless self-preservation, ‘Wag the Dog’s cheekily macabre tenor now almost seems in poor taste. It is too true to be funny. And instead of documenting such breaches as these in disgust, ‘Wag the Dog’ is content to mirror and mock them with a cynical shrug and a whistle on the way to the bank. Yes, this is its prerogative as a movie—as entertainment—and there is nothing wrong with accepting it on just such terms. Unfortunately, too many of its viewers will do nothing more than shake their heads and ‘Ain’t it the truth.’ Maybe it is. But it needn’t be.