A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 247 – Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog – November 2nd, 2010

I hate politics. Really. Political discussions never fail to leave me with a sense of vague impending dread. I work in a public position, and on election days I spend the evening in a polling location, where people frequently expect me to tell them how I voted and to engage in debates while I work. I try to take election days off to avoid having to deal with things like that. I vote (in every election) and then I sit at home and don’t watch the news.

So it’s a good thing this movie isn’t really about politics. At no point do we ever find out which party is behind the machinations in the movie. Really, arguments could be made for either side because no policies are discussed. One character, Winifred, who works for the current president, goes on a tear at one point, calling another character a Commie liberal, but then said “Commie liberal” is mentioned as being supportive of the current president. And he doesn’t actually vote in political elections. He votes for the Academy Awards. That’s it. This is a movie about spin and the media and maneuvering and manipulation and misdirection. So okay, maybe it is a movie about politics, but not real politics. It’s about modern politics and how it’s often not the policies we hear about. The policies are incidental. It’s the stories we hear. And as any reader knows, you can make up some pretty impressive stories when you put your mind to it.

Now, this is satire. Very dark satire, given the ending, but yes. Satire. It is meant as an exaggeration of the subject, but only to a point. The whole idea is that it’s presenting something that isn’t wholly unbelievable and then takes it over the top. In the movie the president is about to be embroiled in a scandal involving sexual misconduct. And so Conrad Brean is called in. Mr. Fixit. The guy who takes care of situations like this. Because the election is coming up in eleven days and this will sink any chance for re-election. And Conrad goes to work immediately, manufacturing first some rumors about a new bomber and then rumors about a situation in Albania and then, with the help of a film producer named Stanley Motss, he manufactures a war. Sure, the start of it was rumors and rumors can spiral outwards quickly on their own, but soon they need footage and people and story. And so they make them. Brean and Motss and Winifred Ames, a presidential aide, together with Motss’s assistant Grace and a team of Hollywood folks who work on fads and songs and costumes and all the trappings they’ll need.

What’s fun for me to watch in this movie isn’t just how the team comes up with piece after piece of this elaborate hoax, but watching them watch the press run with it. All they have to do is leak a word or two to the right person and suddenly the press is doing it all for them. Building the story higher and higher than they ever could have done it themselves. I can only imagine how it would play out in a more net-savvy time. This wasn’t made that long ago, but long enough ago in computer time that the web wasn’t the same sort of force it is now. Just imagine the memes that would rise out of this now. Shoe-based macros would only be the tip of the iceberg. It’s about media and the press and all that, yes. But it’s also about the power of suggestion and imagination and how much can be done with just an idea.

To be honest, I feel a little guilty about liking this movie. I don’t really like what’s done in it. I despise this sort of playing on emotions and manipulation. The whole hoax is pretty sickening, really, if you think about it from a serious perspective. But I can’t help but admire the set-up. The grandeur and audacity of it. I don’t have to like it to appreciate it as presented here. And it helps that it’s presented in a fantastically clever way by a wonderful cast. It’s just wild enough to be unrealistic (unless you’re particularly paranoid, which I’m not today, since I’ve been avoiding the news, and no, that is NOT an invitation to comment and tell me what’s going on), and has plenty of humor spread throughout. So I can laugh at it even as I find the actions reprehensible. Robert De Niro is wonderfully understated as Brean and Dustin Hoffman plays an excellent counterpoint to him as Motss. I’ve always loved Anne Heche as Winifred (a part originally written for a man) and the team who put together the whole show (Willie Nelson, Denis Leary and Andrea Martin). There are smaller parts, like Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy and Kirsten Dunst (who says one of my favorite throwaway references “These are chips!”) that are all great. I love everyone in this movie. They pull it off so well. And so I can hate what they’re doing and still chuckle as they do it. That’s a well done movie. And I still maintain it’s not really about politics at all.


November 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wag the Dog

November 2, 2010

Wag The Dog

Election day! We’ve done our civic duty and gone out and cast our ballets, so now we’re watching the quintessential movie about the sham that is American politics in the days of mass media. I know that this movie is a dark comedy spoof, but events that have gone on in the years since it came out make it seems likely that spin doctors and campaign managers ever since have taken it as the blueprint for how to put a person in office. (Look at some of the wilder accusations in Bush’s Brain which intimates that Karl Rove once planted a listening device in his own office so that he could blame it on a rival candidate.) About a year ago I read What Happened – the book written by Bush Jr.’s press secretary Scott McClellan about his time in the white house. It talks a lot about the never ending campaign and the teams of people that every candidate employs to maintain control over the message being delivered by the media. There really is a constant war going on to be the author of the dominant sound byte. (I’ll ignore for now Rupert Murdoch’s end run – dominating the message sent out by the media by simply being the guy who cuts their paychecks.) None of this, of course, is anything new – the power of the media has been used to further the goals of media moguls at least as far back as William Randolph Hearst, and probably long before that. This movie makes a small but plausible supposition: that candidates don’t just try to manipulate the media and put the best possible spin on a story but that they actually manufacture fake stories to feed to the media.

This is a sly, clever movie full of great dialog and fantastic acting. There is hardly any action – even the big plane crash near the end of the movie happens off screen – so the entire film rests on the patter and the actors delivering it. The script, written by Hilary Henkin (author of Roadhouse!) and David Mamet (synonymous with clever and intricate dialog) is pitch perfect. It tells the story of a mysterious spin doctor and fixer named Conrad Brean who is brought in to help with the sitting President’s campaign when a scandal breaks out. “Who cares if it’s true – it’s a story” he says early on, and that seems to be his motto. Brean, with the help of white house insider Winifred Ames, enlists Stanly Motss to produce a fictional war to feed to the media and distract them from accusations by a campfire girl that she was molested by the President during a White House tour. Motss in turn brings on his team of artists and the movie then becomes a kind of heist film. It’s all about the big con – can this group of people manufacture something and get the world to believe it long enough for the President to win the election, which is only eight days away? Think of it as The Sting, but the mark is the American people.

There are so many clever scenes in this movie that I’m almost tempted to just start quoting at random from them. A couple of times we are treated to brainstorming sessions as Motss and his team put together ideas. What they need is a quick media soundbyte to put on the television to personalise the war (in this case manufactured footage of a girl fleeing a village sacked by terrorists.) Then they need tie-ins. Patriotic songs, a hero, a moving speech by the President. At every turn the team are the perfect manipulators. And America in the movie buys right into the whole thing. It’s fun to see people caught up in fads manufactured by the Fad King. Brean even has an iconic scene where he convinces a skeptical CIA officer to go along with his scam.

It helps that this movie has an absolute dream cast. Rober De Nero as Brean is always calm, collected, and thinking several moves ahead. Anne Heche plays the sympathetic role of the disbelieving audience, wondering aloud how she can possibly save her career and then being awed by the machinations of the people she’s brought in to save the President. Dustin Hoffman as Motss looks like he’s having a complete ball – poking fun at Hollywood producers, their egos and their excesses at every turn. His team of specialists is a wonder to behold, particularly the frenetic Fad King played by Denis Leary and John Dean, the drunken and addled song writer played by Willie Nelson. (You get the feeling that Nelson is pretty much playing himself – which ads to the fun.)

How many times does this movie presciently predict the future? I mean, sure, we all know that this movie came out a year before the Monica Lewinski scandal, and Clinton’s supposed attempt to wag the dog, but there’s an awful lot more. “What do you say we line up the President for the Peace Prize?” says producer Stanley Motss in the movie – which if the film came out today would feel like a reference to President Obama. Indeed there was an entire scandal during the 2004 Presidential election when somebody DID manufacture news in an attempt to influence the election. In the end it cost Dan Rather his job and failed to alter the ultimate outcome. Since the president had very wisely started a war in his first term the voting public felt that it would be a bad idea to “change horses in mid-stream.” (I am still waiting for credible evidence that the Bush administration had the ability to prevent the September 11 attacks and allowed them to happen anyhow in order to precipitate his war in Iraq, which was the lynch pin of his election strategy and energy policy.)

If, as I suspect, American politics really is now all about manipulating the media and by means of the media the American public then this movie is part of the cure. Think of it as an inoculation. Once you’ve seen this movie and accepted that this kind of stuff could and probably does happen then you are less likely to accept what you are told at face value. Ideally the voting public should build up a healthy skepticism. I’d say that the Internet is a part of the cure as well, since it is full of people who like to pick apart perceived flaws in reporting, but it is also filled with crazy crackpots and conspiracy theorists like myself. So in short you can’t really believe anything you read or see… I don’t really know how anybody can be expected to make effective choices under these circumstances. But I voted today anyhow. How’s that for patriotism?

November 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments