Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog. Baltimore Pictures 1997.

Before watching the movie:

I haven’t been able to laugh at the presidency in years. At least, not as the product of something other than a mixture of horror, anger, and embarrassment. Washington/the Federal Government lately hasn’t been a source of cynical guffaws. But things have changed and there’s room to be relieved and somewhat relaxed again. For the foreseeable future, we’re returning to, at worst, garden variety corruption and only casual imperialism.

This movie came to me in a presidential-themed movie collection that I found when looking for a disk-based replacement to an old VHS copy of Dave, a favorite I’m looking forward to returning to soon, and could get a Movies of My Yesterdays if “soon” is not all that soon.

After watching the movie:

In the hours before the story of a Firefly Girl’s accusation that the president molested her in the Oval Office hits the news, Conrad Brean, the best spin doctor the president has for fixing a crisis, is called in to make sure this doesn’t lose the president the election, which is two weeks away. Brean concocts a plan to distract the media with a fake story of being on the brink of war with Albania. Why Albania? What does anyone know about Albania? Exactly. Brean can spin, but to produce fiction, he turns to Hollywood producer Stanley Motss to shape the story, fabricate the scenes of war for the media, and commission the hit singles for the public to rally around. When the CIA, which has very good proof that there is no war in Albania, announces to the media that the fighting has ended, Brean and Motss have to find a new angle to keep the president’s support up until after the election.

The inspiration, I’m sure, comes from administrations like Nixon, Reagan, and Johnson, but there are definitely elements familiar to the Clinton, Bush, and Trump years. They don’t need soundstages anymore though, now distraction is as easy as raging on Twitter or sending the vice president to a leftist show to provoke a response from the cast. Thankfully this is the year that the spell the current, now outgoing administration had over the news media broke, and no Conrad Brean was there to fix it.

I was expecting this movie to have the race involved more heavily, but it’s so not the focus of the story that the president doesn’t even get a name, and his opponent is only seen in small glimpses of televised speeches. This movie isn’t about politics, it’s about the spin machine. We do learn that the president is the conservative choice from the running gag that his terrible campaign ads are all about him being the safe option that won’t “change things that don’t need to be changed”, and the presidential aide that Brean and Motss are coordinating the show with is critically concerned with not having illegal immigrants working for the president or being part of the war hero story. The president is the packaged sausage, and the movie is about the factory that made it.

This is a very musical movie. It has original songs by Willie Nelson (who also plays the folk singer who writes the war singles), as well as Merle Haggard and probably some others that I’d know if I was more into folk and classic country. The media campaign is carried by music as much as it is by seeding questions in press conferences and staging moments for the camera. I thought “The American Dream” laid it on too thick, but that one was canceled before they could publish it by the war it was supposed to support being “ended”.

Despite sometimes being ticked off that a lot of this really is part of the PR game of the political industry, this still had a lot of moments that made me laugh. Maybe it was meant to be more absurd than it seems now, but I appreciated that everyone directing the process (except Brean, who seems to only be in it for the money) compromised what they stand for in some way in service of reelecting the president, so it becomes the hollowest of victories. Really, did anyone other than the nameless president win?

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