There’s Life in the Old Dog Yet.
David Mamet and Larry Beinhart’s script, adapted from Beinhart’s book “American Hero”, tells the tale of a hastily constructed political cover up that sets out to hide a potentially ruinous Presidential sex scandal. The set up (without spoilers) is as follows; prior to an imminent Election a young “Firefly Girl” alleges that while on a tour of the Whitehouse, the President gave her a private showing of a Frederic Remington bust and a whole lot more besides.
The film was hugely prescient, but overshadowed by the spicier real-life scandal in the Clinton administration around the time of its 1997 release. As the UK wasn’t exposed to a global news pipe hosing us down 24/7, American politics was a less interesting or relevant subject. Fast forward 20 years and with the rise of “Fake News”, a President called Trump, and all manner of political chicanery being exposed daily, the story is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.
Despite the simple premise of the film, like a multistorey car park attendant, this works on more than one level. But keep up as this film won’t spoon feed you. The script delivers the helpings of satire with a side order of fries, and a conspiracy that is deeper than Deep Throat. The tone is as if Netflix’s House of Cards was written by the team that gave you the Thick of It – dark but knowing.
What separates this from similar films (Bulworth, Election; superb films, go watch them), is the vortex of pure spin that De Niro’s character Conrad “Connie” Bream generates to exonerate the president, misdirecting the media and using the truth sparingly. He navigates the political map with no moral compass, leaving it up to you to decide what is right or wrong and what might actually occur in real life.
Comparing the film to political events in the US, Bream could easily be Roger Stone. If you don’t know who Roger Stone is then you should do, with tactics delivered right out of the Stone dirty tricks playbook. Throughout the mayhem Anne Heche’s Presidential aide trails in the wake of Bream. Heche throws out changes of direction faster than a breakdancer on amphetamines, leaving her with the task of trying to produce a coherent political strategy. On team Bream is Denis Leary’s “Fad King” and Willie Nelson’s “Jonny Dean” who create one of the best political songs in a movie ever. This is orchestrated to perfection by Dustin Hoffman’s character Stanley Motss, roped in to ensure a totally manufactured war is delivered to the waiting media. Hoffman is clearly channeling every producer he’s ever met.
Looking at the situation in a post-internet era you have to ask yourself could an entirely fictional war be created from spit ‘n’ polish without anyone raising a few objections ? Certainly in a more Internet savvy world there would probably be some emails sent to Huffpo maybe ? Given what we have just seen in the US, perhaps it is as easy as it ever was to tell a YUGE! lie to the world?
The film’s most telling moment is when De Niro’s “Connie Bream” recruits “Stanley Motss”. He references several famous images of war that are scorched into our collective psyche, flashed on screen to remind us; “naked girl covered in napalm”, “(Churchill’s) V for Victory”, “Five marines raising the flag…”. Bream concludes “You remember the picture 50 years from now, but you’ll have forgotten the war.”
A pretty accurate summary of how history remains with the general population. As time passes the resolution in our mental image bank diminishes. We forget the details, instead curating a half remembered montage of images assembled in a hazy timeline of events, in which we always cast ourselves as the good guys…
Like history, Wag the Dog’s finer details may wane with time but the overall impression will be one that lingers. Even if you forget the jokes, you will start to see stark parallels when you watch the news. Wag the Dog comes from a very different era of Hollywood, one that was more profoundly political. A Hollywood where stars were not afraid to attach their names to a political message, comedic or not. Wag the Dog is a film definitely of its time.
This is a film that should definitely be on your top list of the next 10 films to see. If you have seen it, do give it another viewing as it stands up very well 20 years on from technological advances and political backsliding… But be warned, after watching this, the lines between fiction and reality may be a little too close for comfort. Your news media cynicism will most likely jump up a notch or two – 8/10.