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.