Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Jon Stewart’s Irresistible headed for home-viewing platforms—and with November 3 on the horizon—we’re looking back at other films about elections or political campaigns.
Life often imitates art, but Wag The Dog, like The China Syndrome, got an unusually speedy real-world response. Loosely adapted from a novel by Larry Beinhart, the film imagines a scenario in which the U.S. president, credibly accused of sexual misconduct, attempts to distract the public’s attention via a hastily manufactured war; it was originally released on Christmas Day, 1997, less than a month before Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky became public knowledge. When Clinton subsequently bombed Afghanistan and Sudan, mere days after making a belated apology to the nation for his behavior, it was impossible not to think of Wag The Dog, and to wonder how the movie could have been so prescient (though Beinhart’s novel, American Hero, is explicitly set in the first Bush administration, with famed Republican strategist Lee Atwater as one of its main characters). At the time, nobody could have known that we’d one day have a president whose obsession with controlling the news cycle trumps everything else.
Not that the president plays any significant role in Wag The Dog, mind you. In fact, he’s seen only from behind or at a distance, and played by an unknown actor (Michael Belson, who has literally no other movie credits of any kind—must’ve been somebody’s buddy). Instead, we observe high-priced political consultant Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who’s hired to stage a diversion that needs to last just 11 days—that is, until the president can be re-elected. Immediately concluding that only a phony war will have the requisite overshadowing power, and deciding that it should be with Albania (“Why Albania?” “Why not?”), Brean in turn hires Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman, looking suspiciously like actual Hollywood producer Robert Evans) to create key images seen on television by the American public. At one point, a teen actor (Kirsten Dunst), costumed as an Albanian refugee, runs frantically across a soundstage while Motss’ F/X team digitally replaces the bluescreen behind her with a destroyed village and the bag of Tostitos in her arms with exactly the right adorable/pitiable kitten.
That’s one of Wag The Dog’s best jokes, but this is the sort of pitch-black comedy that’s more grimly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. David Mamet reportedly wrote most of the screenplay that director Barry Levinson used (though he shares credit with Hilary Henkin, who penned the original draft), and there’s plenty of his distinctive dialogue throughout. (“I bet you’re good at chess, Connie,” Motss suggests, receiving the reply “I would be. I could remember how all the pieces move.”) What’s most striking today, though, is the complete absence of even a cursory moral viewpoint. This fictional president molests a Girl Scout, and though everyone on screen accepts the accusation as likely to be true, nobody ever expresses the slightest revulsion, or even concern about anything other than the president’s approval rating. This is a frighteningly cynical world, suffused with mercenary self-interest; Motss even brings in a guy known only as the Fad King (Denis Leary), whose job is to generate merchandising opportunities from the ostensible horrors of a fake war, with slogans like “Behind enemy lines… or anytime.” Two decades ago, that still came across as wild exaggeration—nobody could be so shameless. How confident of that do we feel now?