More noise than signal

Wag the Dog

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Barry Levinson’s 1997 outing adapts Larry Beinhart’s American Hero, a novel that floats the suggestion that the first Gulf War was orchestrated to increase George Bush the Elder’s popularity, mirroring the Falkland War / Margaret Thatcher situation. Here the POTUS is bedevilled by a brewing sex scandal a few weeks out from re-election, so White House aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) call in ‘fixer’ Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) to crisis manage the looming PR disaster.

His solution is to distract the media and public by going to war, or give a very strong impression of having gone to war, if not exactly doing any of the actual fighting that generally constitutes a war. Having picked the Albanians as a usefully obscure scapegoat, he enlists the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to, well, produce the war, including filming faked war footage and generally defining the narrative, along with his shadowy cabinet including the likes of Denis Leary and Willie Nelson, who are essentially playing themselves.

Surprisingly (incredulously) this seems to be working, until the CIA (represented here mainly by William H. Macy) stick their oar in, not best pleased about this fakery and throwing hints to the challenger that combat operations have ended. It’s too soon for Motss to contemplate stopping the story, so they gin up the wheeze of a soldier left behind enemy lines that they hope the country will unite behind. Again, this seems to be working until a casting mishap sees them working with Woody Harrelson’s Sergeant William Schumann, a military prisoner who’s more “dangerously disturbed” than “lovable rogue”.

And so it goes, and while it rather stretches belief that seemingly no-one in the media thought to go the the “frontlines” and check on any of this, there’s enough bluster from Dustin Hoffman and co to blow over that plot hole – although perhaps I’m just viewing this from the comforting distance of the age of social media. I don’t know what Albania’s Twitter engagement numbers are, but I doubt they’re bad enough to let a fake war rampage through their country without a counter-narrative emerging.

Wag the Dog features great comic turns from all involved, leads and supports, headed by Hoffman’s domineering performance that’s great fun to watch, and it’s a great reminder of Robert De Niro’s capacity for actual comedy that is funny, as opposed to his more recent habit of appearing in proported comedies that are very much not funny. Hell, even Denis Leary’s tolerable, and that’s as highly as I’ve ever rated him.

As far as any film coming out of Hollywood is concerned, this is as black a comedy as is imaginable – or certainly from a major studio with this star power behind it. Again, as viewed from the modern era. Cynicism in Hollywood movies seems to have reduced greatly after 9/11 for understandable reasons, and between social changes and business case it’s probably never going to return to the Vietnam-era grim-ness that Wag the Dog might be the last comic response to. Nightcrawler might be as close as we get to Taxi Driver, but at least we’ve got plenty of Marvel films to distract us.

One of the few films I’ve seen that features a aeroplane crash purely for narrative convenience. Still, hugely enjoyable stuff and highly recommended.