Monday, December 17, 2012

How to Change the Subject

Tracy (Kirsten Dunst): What would they do to me if I did tell someone about this?

Conrad (Robert De Niro): They could come to your house in the middle of the night and kill you.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Wag the Dog," which debuted on this day in 1997, and to no small extent because I understood and appreciated the nature of the title. But it did require a little explanation.

When I first heard the title, I thought it was the name of a character — you know, like Bozo the Clown. Logically, I figured that it was a dog named Wag and, if the title character was a dog, it must be a cartoon — you know, kind of like Felix the Cat — although perhaps not (this was around the time that "Babe" was in the theaters).

But then I discovered it was a variation of the old saying that "the dog wags the tail, the tail doesn't wag the dog."

When applied to a political context — as it was in this movie — it meant to distract public attention from a matter of great importance to focus on a matter of lesser importance — or, in the case of this movie, a matter that didn't really exist.

In the movie, the president is facing the voters in his bid for re–election. Foolishly, he sexually assaults a member of some Firefly Girl group that is visiting the White House in the closing days of the campaign, and he needs the help of a spin doctor played by Robert De Niro to get him over the hump (as it were) to Election Day.

(In my own defense, the plotline encouraged some really bad puns.)

De Niro, in turn, recruits a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman), who is bitter over never receiving the recognition he craves for the work he has done, to help him create a phony war to distract attention from the abuse allegations.

And, thus, an elaborate deception was born.

Hoffman's character put together such an impressive visual depiction of a war that he himself observed it was "the best work I've ever done in my life, because it's so honest."

Well, honesty was relative.

Or, in the words of the movie's producers, "Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog."

Hoffman's undoing was in not being satisfied with the knowledge that it was his "best work." He wanted the credit that had been denied to him throughout his career.

"You're playing with your life," De Niro's character warned him, but he wouldn't listen — and he wound up dying shortly thereafter, officially of a heart attack while sunning himself by his pool.

Overseeing all of this was Anne Heche's character, Winifred the presidential adviser who acted as the buffer between the president and everything else. At times, she was severely tested, as when she was informed that the hand–picked "hero" of the fictional conflict — played by Woody Harrelson — was an unsavory sort who had been convicted of raping a nun.

"Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God," she kept muttering.

Hoffman assured her that, as long as the "hero" took his medication, "He's fine."

What if he doesn't take his medication, Heche's character wanted to know.

"He's not fine."

To be fair to Hoffman's character, he did design a credible war backdrop for the cover story, enlisting Kirsten Dunst to play a peasant girl running from assailants with a kitten in her arms (the kitten and the scenery and sound effects would be edited in later — Dunst was told to run through a sound stage carrying a bag of tortilla chips).

In a classic example of the misdirection used by the spin doctor and his associates, De Niro's character urges people like the press secretary to make up denials about non–existent rumors — such as the one about the B–3 bomber.

There is no such thing, of course, and no one had been talking about it, but De Niro's character still protests that he doesn't know how such rumors get started — and the direction of the conversation is changed.

Roger Ebert made an intriguing observation in his review of the movie in the Chicago Sun–Times: "It's creepy how this material is absurd and convincing at the same time. ... Even when a conflict is real and necessary ... the packaging ... is invariably shallow and unquestioning; like sportswriters, war correspondents abandon any pretense of objectivity and detachment, and cheerfully root for our side."

Coincidentally, the movie came out around the same time that Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was in the news, and he was facing impeachment. The Clinton administration also engaged in some saber rattling against Iraq — which critics alleged was an attempt to shift the focus of the public conversation. It was, they said, a real–life "Wag the Dog."

"['Wag the Dog'] is a satire that contains just enough realistic ballast to be teasingly plausible," Ebert wrote, "like 'Dr. Strangelove,' it makes you laugh, and then it makes you wonder."

It still does.