Sunday, July 2, 2017
Wag the Dog
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
This blog has discussed films such as A Face in the Crowd and Network which predicted the abuse of the media in a democratic society in order to manipulate the population. But, this 1997 satire, directed by Barry Levinson, presents that deceptive practice at the highest level of the American government, which uses modern cinematic technology to pull off the fraud.
The movie begins with a reference to the title. The written heading says that the dog can wag his tail because the dog is smarter than his tail. If the tail is smarter, than it will wag the dog. The story (co-adapted by David Mamet) implies that the expanse of the American population is being outsmarted by a few individuals who manipulate the masses to serve them, instead of the other way around.
The president is up for re-election within two weeks. In a despicable act, he is accused of molesting a young girl belonging to a Girls Scouts-like organization in the White House. The story immediately provides us with a person of low morality at the highest level of government. His campaign ad emphasizes that the people shouldn’t gamble by choosing someone new to the office, saying “Why change horses in midstream?” To modern ears, the slogan sounds corny, but Abraham Lincoln used it. His reputation of being “Honest Abe,” ironically contrasts with how far the integrity of politicians has fallen. What follows stresses how honesty has become an almost extinct entity in current politics.
The White House brings in the ultimate fixer, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro). Conrad’s default position is who knows what the truth is? He’s not concerned with the veracity of the scandal, because as he says, “What difference does it make if it’s true? If it’s a story and it breaks, they’re gonna run with it.” Thus, he knows that the press will flood the media with the allegation, because people love a juicy story, if it is real or fake. So, he immediately starts with small lies, so he has time to concoct larger ones. The whole goal is to distract the citizens, which he has found he can easily sway, away from the scandal long enough to get the president re-elected. The chief executive is in China, and Connie wants him to stay there while he works on the plan. First, he says the word to the press will be that the president is sick. This unknown man can now wield such power as to dictate what the president is to say and do. He says that the delay has nothing to do with the “B-3 bomber.” A White House aide says there is no such plane. Connie says, “I just said that. There is no B-3 bomber, and I don’t know why these rumors get started!” Connie knows that just by denying something that no one has any idea about will trigger human curiosity. So, this “fake news” will then provide the diversion he needs. By propagating a negative, the speaker is protected from accusations of lying, since no positive position was claimed.
Connie decides that the best distraction would be a war. When he is told that we are not at war, he says “We’re gonna have the appearance of a war.” And, there is what passes for truth – appearances. If it looks true, or even better, if it feels real, then we embrace it. There is no longer a reliance on facts, because facts can be manipulated. What the news does not highlight is just as important as what it does. It comes down to accepting what we believe to be true. Perception becomes reality. Connie says we are at war with Albania. When asked why that country, his response is “Why not?” To prove a negative leads to never-ending futility, because anything can be hypothesized in the absence of some evidence. That is why science first observes phenomena, constructs a hypothesis based on concrete evidence, and then tests it. In addition, Connie appeals to emotion instead of concrete facts, saying nobody knows about Albania. He says, “They keep to themselves. Shifty. Untrustable.” He picks an obscure country so he can sow his seeds of mistrust on virgin unawareness. Again, the news release is framed to claim plausible deniability. Hostile actions with Albania are denied, so any references to the supposed B-3 bomber can’t be assumed to be connected to the hypothetical aggression. Connie has given the press and the people something to chew on, even if it is imaginary food for thought.
What better place to get help to present the “appearance” of a war than Hollywood, which has a long history of making war movies? So, Connie, accompanied by an assistant, Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), seeks the assistance of famous movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman, in an Oscar-nominated role). We first encounter him in a tanning bed, because appearance is what counts, not underlying substance, even if the appearance rests on fakery, like his tan. When Stan asks why him, Connie spouts out several war slogans, including, “54-40 or Fight” and “Remember the Maine!” He says that we recall the phrases, what we would now call “sound bites,” but can’t remember the wars. People remember the Marines raising the flag in WWII, or the naked girl involved in a napalm bombing in Vietnam, but not the story surrounding them. It is the catchiness of the slogans and the emotional visuals that capture the interest of the people. These elements are what Hollywood excels at. Connie emphasizes that television focused in on the one smart bomb going down a chimney in the Gulf War, out of all the missions conducted, to extrapolate the whole campaign from one visual. And from that one image the war was sold. He tells Stan, “War is show business.” To back up his argument, he says to Stan that what if that shot of the smart bomb was done on a film stage in Virginia with a scale model of the building. When Stan asks if that’s true, Connie’s consistent response about truth is “How the fuck do we know?” He later says that the first draft of the Warren Commission said that Kennedy was killed by a drunk driver. For Connie, everything is open to interpretation. Given the level of modern technology, how do we separate fact from fiction? If those in charge, the film is saying, are dishonest, then democracy is at risk, since voting should rely on informed decisions.
As Winifred and Connie watch a press conference with the White House press secretary, Stan begins to see Connie’s point. The journalists start to ask questions about the fictitious Albania conflict and the B-3 bomber, ignoring the presidential scandal. Stan asks to contribute to the White House stance, and the press secretary says exactly what Stan tells Connie, who relays it on his cell phone. But, Stan says that the press secretary didn’t “sell” the lines, which shows how Stan is joining the team that merges politics and show business. Winifred notes that Stan lives in a home larger than the White House, which indicates that fiction can be more powerful than fact.
Stan now begins to concoct the story-line, supplementing Connie. He says that Albania has a suitcase nuclear bomb that they are trying to sneak into the United States through Canada, because the Albanian terrorists want to destroy our way of life. This story-line enlists patriotism. Stan then gathers people around him the way he does when he makes a movie. They call their production a pageant, which is a pretend spectacle. He recruits people, like Denis Leary’s Fad King, who helps with marketing war items so that the fake war can turn a profit. He enlists a country-western singer, Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson) to write a patriotic song that is produced like “We are the World.” There is a brief but telling shot which has Stan putting the president on hold as he tells his Cecil B. DeMille story. The point is the movie producer is running the show now, so the tail is wagging the dog. This idea is further demonstrated when Stan is filming the phony Albanian peasant girl escaping the Albanian terrorists. Stan wants her to appear to be carrying a calico cat, but the president wants a white feline. Stan’s response is “I hate when they start to meddle.” A man who produces make-believe stories is the boss now, turning the real political world into a fabrication. A bag of potato chips is digitally morphed into a cat, and a blue screen becomes an Albanian village. The state-of-the-art filmmaking process, if presented as reality, sabotages real life. Connie says, “It makes you glad to live this long” to see this kind of technology, a statement that combines an awe for scientific achievement undercut by the scary way it is being used in this story.
The people involved in this false production don’t care about the country’s democracy. They don’t even vote, except for the Oscars, says Stan, which shows how his business of creating illusion is more important to him than the actual well-being of the country he lives in. But the peasant girl, played by Kirsten Dunst, and anybody else in the production, can never say a word about their participation in the “pageant,” or else, Connie quietly threatens, people will come to their homes and kill them. It is a chilling moment when Connie threatens the actress, suggesting how easily a totalitarian state can come to exist.
Connie builds on the made-up story by wanting the president to land at an airport where it is raining. The president can then cover an Albanian girl and her relative, symbolically protecting them. The phony Albanians present a sheaf of a harvest based on some concocted version of a ceremony that Connie dreamed up that will show thanks to the president for protecting Albanians from terrorists. On the phone, Winifred asks if there is any way there can be rain at the American air base for the presidential landing. These people have so much power, they see themselves as god-like, believing they can alter the weather. This self-perception is encouraged by being around Stan, who as a filmmaker can manipulate the weather for a scene, and who tells Connie that he could have provided a rain-making machine, instead of diverting the plane to a city where there was wet weather.
Connie’s plans hit a snag when the CIA stop the car carrying him and Winifred. William H. Macy’s agent says that there is no war, there are no terrorist training camps in Albania, and no suitcase bomb exists, based on their intelligence gathering. Connie convinces him to let them go by giving a speech that predicts the type of war in which we are engaged today. He tells the CIA agent that if he doesn’t get with the program, then he isn’t doing his job, and will lose his employment. He tells him, “The war of the future is nuclear terrorism. It is and it will be against a small group of dissidents … and you can call this a ‘drill,’ or you can call it ‘job security,’ … And if there ain’t no war, then you, my friend, can go home and prematurely take up golf. Because there ain’t no war but ours.” Connie’s tail is wagging the heck out of this dog, claiming that no war takes place unless he says so. He can control the message through the media, which is the most dominant way to disseminate what he decides is the news. After his speech, Winnifred says Connie gave a “great performance,” which cements the idea that the political world and the show business world have become one.
But, Connie’s “agreement” with the CIA falls apart. The president’s electoral opponent says he talked with the CIA, and announces on network news that there is no war with Albania. A dejected Connie says the war is over, because he “saw it on television.” Whatever appears in the media is taken as truthful. However, Stan lives in a world of illusion, and can’t distinguish between fact or fiction. His producing powers, which have given him the control over life and death in films, makes him feel omnipotent. So, anytime things go wrong, he says, “This is nothing,” because he won’t allow himself to be subject to the limitations of actual life. He says that it is his war, and now it needs an “Act Two.” He sees life as a story, and he and the Fad King say that the tale of a war must have a hero. They invent a war hero who has been left behind enemy lines, like a discarded shoe, and who must be rescued. He needs a nickname, so they come up with “Old Shoe.” Connie gets Johnny Dean to come up with a ballad about loss and redemption, a favorite Hollywood plot. To add to the authenticity that the song was made a long time ago, and now remembered to fit the current situation, as opposed to appearing suspiciously produced recently, Connie says that the recording of the song should be scratchy. To show the extent of this conspiracy, they have it inserted into the Library of Congress, and one of Connie’s female aides sleeps with a journalist, so she can plant the idea of the old song matching the story. A video of the song shows a young girl crying as she listens to the words. Stan says they could have used fake tears, but the actress actually cried. This fact shows they have sold this falsehood so well, that the actors involved have deluded themselves, and accept the phoniness as real. Connie and Stan start to fling tied-together shoes onto electric wires as a sort of yellow-ribbon type of symbol symbolizing the hope for Old Shoe’s return. They can make money out of this activity by selling shoes and t-shirts, connecting the sales pitch to hero-worship. The Fad King says that they will say that Old Shoe ate little burgers in the field, and they will then sell these burgers at franchises, with the sales pitch that they are good to eat, “Behind enemy lines – or anywhere.” Fiction and politics produce profits in a capitalistic three-way.
Stand writes a speech for the president to deliver about the lost war hero. But, the chief executive doesn’t like it, calling it too corny. Stan meets with the president, sits at his desk in the oval office, and presents his speech to White House secretaries, who cry. The president is sold. When Stan sits in the White House in the president’s chair, it is a significant image because it shows how appearance, illusion, and fiction now control the country. Connie gets military records, and they come up with William Schumann (Woody Harrelson), his name being appropriate for someone being called “Old Shoe.” But, there is a mix-up, as the records accessed soldiers in “special prisons,” instead of “special programs.” The real Schumann is a far cry from the pretend one Stan invented. Harrelson’s sergeant is a psychotic inmate who raped a nun. The scene where they meet Schumann and put him onboard a plane flying to his supposed arrival back in the states becomes farcical, but is still very funny. Connie calls someone saying they are going to need a whole lot of Schumann’s medications. Schumann keeps saying he must get back to base so he can eat his “beans.” He randomly comes out with lines like, “I owned a Camaro,” and sings, “I like the night life/I love to boogie.” At times, he does not know how he arrived where he is. In a way, his out of touch with reality world presents the nightmare version of what happens when reality is altered, as is occurring deliberately here.
The plane crash-lands in a storm, and, luckily for the conspirators, the local rural owner of a gas station shoots and kills Schumann when the latter tries to sexually assault his daughter. There is a hero’s funeral for Schumann with the pretense that he sustained fatal injuries. Stan looks at the funeral from inside the airport terminal. He says, showing how reality and illusion are inseparable, that it is a complete fraud, “and it looks a hundred percent real. It’s the best work I’ve done in my life, because it’s so honest.” What a contradictory statement, because he associates exactitude in presenting a fiction for reality as being free from something fraudulent.
The jump in the president’s popularity is accurately attributed by one newscaster to the “spin” placed on events, not the actual events themselves. However, the media also attributes the president’s success to the “Why change horses in midstream?” campaign. This is too much for Stan, who previously expressed how producers don’t get enough credit for their work. Despite Connie’s pleadings, Stan leaves saying he is going to announce his part in the proceedings. Connie gives the nod to the security man, giving approval for Stan’s elimination. In this world, the manipulators of reality have power over life and death to protect the vision they project to the people.
Stan’s death is, of course, a lie, attributed to a heart attack. But then, he lived deeply in a life where illusion ruled. A news commentator says they are not sure of his age, since there are conflicting biographies. The film ends with a news report of violence in Albania. Is this real, or is the fraud continuing? Director Barry Levinson at the time of the making of the movie said that, because of technology, it is becoming difficult to tell the difference between real and fake news. Senior news journalist Tom Brokaw stated that we must realize that there is, as in other disciplines, a scale of reliable providers. We, using our objective reasoning skills, must assess the reputations of information providers, and believe those without resorting to bias.
The next film is Pressure Point.