Daily Archives: February 13, 2020

Wag the Dog (1997)

*. This was a timely film in 1997, being released just a year before the Monica Lewinsky story broke. That said, I don’t think it’s really a political movie and I don’t think the creators had Clinton in mind.
*. Instead, I think other developments the next year help place it in its proper context. What I’m talking about is what I’ve called the Year of the Simulacrum, meaning the year of Dark City, The Truman Show, and The Matrix. These are all movies about the creation of a totally fake reality that is in effect more real than the real world.
*. So even more than jumping the gun with the Lewinsky affair, Wag the Dog anticipates a change in the zeitgeist, away from what Karl Rove famously dismissed as “the reality-based community.” Under the new media dispensation those with power — TV producers, politicians, ailens — create their own reality, leaving the rest of us to only comment on it.
*. Why did this idea take hold so firmly at this point in time? Maybe it had something to do with the way the Internet was knocking on the door. Let’s face it, as bad as things are presented in Wag the Dog they were about to get much worse. On the commentary track Dustin Hoffman says that the drive behind the film was Barry Levinson’s hatred of television, and Levinson adverts to this in his commentary as well. When people complain about being too cynical with regard to TV he counters that “it has played perhaps the biggest role in the second half of the twentieth century. I don’t think there’s anything that’s come along that has affected our lives as much as television.” This is a notion that a few years later would come to seem quaint.
*. To take just one example, the sophisticated editing done in studio to create the video of the girl with the cat can be achieved today by one guy doodling on a tablet with some off-the-rack software, and then be posted online as a “deep fake.” And today we’re still only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

*. I’m dwelling on the question of how prescient a movie this is because that seems like its main point of interest today. But personally, what I find most compelling is the tragic collapse of Hoffman’s Motss. There’s no situation he hasn’t handled before (“this is nothing!”), but he is ultimately undone by his producer’s ego. Isn’t that the essence of classical tragedy? This campaign is his show, and he wants to be respected, or at least acknowledged as a real artist. He’s tired of just being the puppetmaster and man behind the scenes. He doesn’t need an award, or money, but he does need someone to pay attention. This is what an artist needs more than anything. The threat of anonymity is what breaks him.
*. It’s a tight script all the way through, though it strikes me as being a two-man show. There’s a great collection of talent, but I think Andrea Martin only shows up for a minute or two and Denis Leary only has the one good line. William H. Macy and Woody Harrelson are both very good but in very limited parts. Anne Heche is also good but her character remains passive throughout and she disappears completely at the end.
*. As for the two leads, I don’t get the sense that they’re working hard but they are effective. De Niro might be reprising his role as Mr. Louis Cyphre, only gentler around the edges. Hoffman was apparently channeling his father.
*. And yet despite being so well turned out this remains a minor film, without the fierce impact of Network say (which had been twenty years earlier). This is the downside of being ahead of the curve, as the curve always ends up being even sharper than you think. For all its cynicism and darkness, the satire here plays in a genial key. The reality, I think most of us feel, is, if not quite so strange, very much worse.