Wag the Dog

From Academic Kids

Wag the Dog (1997) is a film starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Anne Heche about a Washington spin doctor (De Niro) who distracts the electorate from a presidential sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood producer (Hoffman) to create a fake war (which eventually comes to shift focus to the fabricated Lieutenant Kije-like Schumann). The scheme enlists the musical talents of Willie Nelson (who creates a theme song for the 'war'). Kirsten Dunst, Woody Harrelson and William H. Macy all appear. Wag the Dog was produced by Barry Levinson, famous for the television series Homicide and Oz. David Mamet co-wrote the screenplay. The film is based on a novel, American Hero by Larry Beinhart.

The film explores serious themes, such as the manipulation of the mass media and public opinion, with a comic sensibility. The film drew attention at the time for similarities to the Clinton sex scandal, although the movie also makes reference to the first Gulf War as an example of war used as an electoral tactic. ("American Hero" is explicitly built on the premise that George H. W. Bush concocted the war on the advice of the late Lee Atwater.) The idea of war as a creation of the media is not, of course, original to the movie. The French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard's ideas in particular are relevant to a discussion of the movie — see for example his essay The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

The title of the movie is taken from the joke: "Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail was smarter, the tail would wag the dog." Interpretations differ as to the meaning of this metaphor. Some suggest the dog is public opinion, and the tail represents the media; the dog is the media, and the tail is political campaigns; or the dog is the people, and the tail is the government. Moreover, the expression "the tail wagging the dog" refers to any case where something of greater significance (such as a war) is driven by something lesser (such as a sex scandal).

The video cassette version contains an extended trailer after the credits that has commentary about the movie in the context of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky by the producers of the movie and Tom Brokaw.

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