Lowdown: A spin king invents a war to secure a president’s re-election.
Having recently watched Man of the Year, the time was right for us to watch its senior brother, Wag the Dog – especially as both of us haven’t seen it but certainly heard enough about it to justify dedicating an hour and a half of our previous time (it’s a short film).
The story follows events taking place during the last two weeks prior to an American presidential election. The king, or rather the reigning president, is caught with his pants down, literally, and with a rather youngish girl in the vicinity. Actually, we never really know what took place there, we only know what the media makes of it. With a genuine risk for his re-election chances, the president brings in a specialist – Robert De Nero – to help salvage his image.
Within a few minutes De Nero has a solution in mind: invent an Albanian threat, and then wage war on Albania. The rest of the film follows how this war is communicated to the American public, mainly with the help of a bitter Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman in yet another excellent performance) who stages the production and comes up with a collection of made up news items, songs and memes to support the war policy.
As the film progresses it stretches the concept of spin further and further. Normally, spin is about the way news is presented; in Wag the Dog, spin takes giant leaps up the ladder when it turns into presenting invented news in order to distract from the real news. Eventually, spin becomes reality, and reality is so harsh that lives are lost because of it.
Director’s Barry Levinson’s point about spin is really well delivered. The film references the 1991 Gulf War quite a lot, and on the DVD supplementals they talk about the Monica Lewinsky affair, but there are much better examples for reality following film than the above. In Australia John Howard supplied us with such examples by the pound, with the children overboard and the AWB scandal being the easiest examples I can bring up with half a second’s notice. Then there’s the entire affair that is commonly referred to as “the war on terror”, including its sub-branch “the war in Iraq”, which is pretty much a collection of made up spin items in order to ensure certain powerful people maintain their power.
Still, Wag the Dog is far from being faultless. Its main problem is with credibility: there are just that many lies that can be invented using so many people without something leaking out to the outside world, especially when a war is waged based on those lies. Kirsten Dunst, for example, plays an innocent actress who was used as an Albanian refugee for a made up news item; even though she had to sign a non disclosure agreement, didn’t her parents recognize her on TV?
Then there is the matter of government agencies, the Secret Service in Wag the Dog’s case, committing murder for their president. I know they’re the president’s employees and all, but come on – are they recruited on the basis of their Hitler’s Youth skills?
Last in the list of bonkers is Anne Heche’s performance. Next to De Nero and Hoffman the token female lead stands out like a grade Z actress.
Best scene: The film’s last scene. After all is over and done with (that is, after the elections are over), a genuine Albanian terrorist threat pops up in a minor newsflash. Given the USA’s experience so far with foreign intervention, nothing seems more likely.
Picture quality: For an older film like Wag the Dog (1997) and an older issue DVD, I was surprised with how good the picture was.
Sound quality: Pretty ordinary (what an abuse of the word "pretty"!).
Overall: An important film that manages to fail just enough to miss out on being a potential landmark of a film. I’ll be generous and give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.