3 Days to the Election Movie Watch - "Wag the Dog"

Up until Election Day on November 4th, we'll be taking a look at one movie every day that involves an election, which gives us seven great political movies to discuss. With 3 days to go, let's start with movie #5!

Wag the Dog (1997)

Hitting theaters in December of 1997, Wag the Dog became eerily prophetic exactly one month later when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke out. The film’s fictional President faces a sex scandal himself, in the middle of a reelection campaign that emphasizes the virtue of staying the course. So in order to bump the scandal off the news and win some votes along the way, his top spinners (Robert De Niro and Anne Heche) bank the entire election on the preposterous idea of hiring a top Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman doing a Robert Evans impression) to put together a fake war against Albania, sparked by a terrorist threat that never happened.

It is, quite obviously, a critique of using bogus crises to distract from lacking homegrown policies, but was it really an attack on then-President Clinton? Conservatives at the time liked to think so, but the President in the film was deliberately nameless, faceless and even party-less; meant to caution that any President, Democrat or Republican, could be abusing their powers. Besides, the novel it was based on deliberately named Bush Senior as the President and Desert Storm as the elaborate Hollywood hoax. Though it is a comedy, Wag the Dog is immensely cynical, posing the belief that the American public are a gullible bunch malleable by the media, and that patriotism is nothing but a passing fad.

Resonance: Ironically, Wag the Dog is even more relevant than before 10 years later. In the film, fear is the loving tactic employed to sway an election, a type of politics we’re not unfamiliar with in the war time of today (unfortunately, the premise probably inspired a lot of those 9/11 Truth wackos). The film also insists that politics is just about telling stories with tearjerking images and songs, not unlike a hit movie. Think that’s too corny to work in the real world? Then why did Barack Obama commission a 30-minute infomercial with slick camerawork, inspirational segments and a sappy score?

Unforgettable Scene: Knowing that the American public can’t just hear about a war—they need to see the gory details—Hoffman shoots an impressive production to be given to the press as actual war footage. Using an unknown actress (Kirsten Dunst), a bluescreen sound stage and some CGI, they manufacture an Albanian village torn apart by America's enemies, waiting for the good guys to swoop in and restore peace. The brilliance of the scene lies in how the post-production crew deliberately select the perfect ingredients to maximize the footage’s impact on a TV audience.

Remember: after you're done watching movies, don't forget to vote!

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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