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Wag the Dog

****
1997

‘…Wag the Dog is a vitriolic comedy/satire that venomously assesses the lack of morality in the modern media and politics…’

David Mamet’s witty reflection of political lies immediately became part of the vocabulary. Having the tail wag the dog is a storied phrase, but Barry Levinson’s film gave it a very specific meaning. The tail wags the dog when the tail is smarter than the dog; the inference is that smart, unprincipled people can derail democracy for their own selfish motives. But the title also became synonymous with the film’s story; to distract from domestic turmoil, a government fixer creates a foreign war to engage the population in patriotic abasement. There have been several potential examples of this to be suggested in US history since 1996, and the film Wag the Dog is often mentioned in the press at the time.

Mamet skips the partisan divide and keeps his politics generic and brand-free. The unseen president has just had sex with a minor in the Oval office bathroom; fixer Conrad Bean (Robert De Niro) arrives in DC to create a distraction, and fastens on the idea of a war with Albania. Kristen Dunst is quickly dressed up as a refugee, complete with a calico cat, and the mastermind behind all this is a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss., played by Dustin Hoffman in a way that immediately evokes Robert Evans, who produced Marathon Man and whose mannerism were well known to the actor.

Without too many laugh-out-loud scenes, Wag the Dog is a vitriolic comedy/satire that venomously assesses the lack of morality in the modern media and politics. The point about convenient wars isn’t new, but the way that a big lie can be foisted on the American people by media-manipulation still resonates. Watching the fake inquiry after the 2020 elections, held in hotel rooms rather than courts, or the fake audits of ballots created as media circuses, tip us the wink that Mamet’s instincts are on the money here.

If there’s a flaw, Bean and Motss’s plan goes too smoothly, and it’s only in the final coda that we understand what’s been passing between these two toxic men. Wag the Dog is the kind of film that should never be off streaming; it’s deeply relevant in a time when understanding how we’re being manipulated may be key to our survival.

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  2. One of the few great satirical films. Hits the nail on the head. Mamet’s dialogue sparkles and DeNiro and Hoffman are brilliant. Glad to hear it still holds up.

    • There are precious few, and this one does make it look easy. Great cast, choice dialogue!

  3. “The inference is that smart, unprincipled people can derail democracy for their own selfish motives.” Sounds like you. Take away the smart, of course. I do like the sound of this film though. I’ll try to give it a watch.

    When’s the podcast getting released?

  4. Completely agree. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this, and 2021 seems like a great time for a revisit. Along with Network and Idiocracy, a chilling trilogy that shows the more things change…

    • Satire is notoriously fickle, but Mamet seems to have been aiming for the long run here. Leaving aside the details of faking a war, or the reasons for one, the point about stage-managing events for the masses is much more prescient now than it was at the time, and the coda is quite chilling. This IS a good time to revisit.

  5. Woody Harrelson’s deranged soldier is all too familiar. The incorporation of a pop-tune to marry the populace to the idea of the righteousness of unethical behavior because we want to believe in good guys and bad guys was masterfully unsettling.

    • And nicely done by Willie Nelson. And the soldier thing is discomforting too, very often the people mixed up in these things seem to have obvious issues. I guess the reason for my review was to suggest that the film deals with stage-managing of all kinds, not just war/scandals.

  6. …Wag the Dog is a vitriolic comedy/satire that venomously assesses the lack of morality in the modern media and politics…’

    Once again, your tagline works out really well. But that is exactly why I haven’t, nor will I, watch this movie. If I want vitriol I’ll just go to my local walmart and cut in line in front of someone 😉

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