The 1997 Barry Levinson produced and directed film Wag the Dog is a satire that makes you laugh but on second thought makes you wonder. The film tells how easier than it seems for a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer to fabricate a war between America and Albania to divert the attention of the citizens from a sex scandal involving the president. (Mayarala, 6)
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Two weeks before election, the unnamed U.S. president is involved in a sex scandal that could potentially affect his re-election. Conrad Brean, a spin-doctor was summoned for his services and he enlists the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Moss (Dustin Hoffman) to carry out the America-Albania war. Brean plans on creating a patriotic media frenzy wherein they would create footages of a fabricated war with a belief that this would push the sex scandal incident off the front pages. (Mayarala, 7)
The film, although absurd and next to impossible is made convincing and coherent with the witty script written by David Mamet. Wag the Dog is also an allegory of the deconstruction of the media frenzy and how it heightens, or in this case soften any possible international crisis. (Mandisa, 98)
“Why does a dog wag its tail?” Brean asks. “Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail was smarter, it would wag the dog.” This is an explanation for the title of the film and also serves as a metaphor on the role citizens play as the tail and the government as, of course the dog. Although the film is a black comedy, it possesses an underlying message and a political undertone that is thought-provoking as citizens in the middle of the politics and the entertainment industry. (Mayarala, 7)
“Change the story, change the lead” is Brean’s motto which is why he chose to give the public a crisis with a bigger magnitude to worry about rather than an alleged sex scandal of the president. The reason Brean chose Albania is because no American is entirely aware of the existence of the country, at least that is what the film claims. Brean chooses, out of all the Hollywood directors and producers Stanley Moss who is unknown but wants to earn himself a name in the industry. Due to Brean’s mind manipulations with no second thoughts, Moss agrees. (Mayarala, 7)
The video of the fabricated war between America and Albania soon made its way to the public through the evening news with no troops having been reported to have been sent to war beforehand and without any doubt, the public believes it and causes tension. The reason for this is that the television and the news has evolved into a powerful form of media so if it’s on air, then it’s real.
Robert De Niro as Conrad Brean is in all likelihood at his element in this film. He took on his character and did not just performed well but embodied the characteristics of a spin-doctor. The premise of the film sounds interesting but predictable, but nevertheless gave a different approach that De Niro as the main character Conrad Brean is able to manipulate the string of events and even had the president follow his orders of staying in China. With a deceptive characteristic, Brean is also able to convince the CIA with the authenticity of the war saying that the war is true because it is on TV. With the CIA on Brean’ trail, he soon devices another plan to incorporate the image of a much believable character in the form of a captured soldier who returns home, Sgt. William Schumann (Woody Harrellson) who creates a speech of his experiences as a captive soldier. The president calls the footage corny and in response, Brean made the White House secretaries watch the video and to his surprise, the women leave the room in tears. (Corleone, 205)
Visually, Wag the Dog is beautifully captured. Although not intimately detailed, it has adapted the ambiance of a black comedy that is perfect for a political satire and also took into consideration the visual appeal of the film to make the film believable, compelling and coherent. Also, the film did not use the political satire as a background catalyst for the comedy or vice versa, instead every element of the film worked hand in hand in interpreting the political undertone of the film. (Williams, 154)
The stunning aspect of the film is its playful camera movements without causing distraction. The zoom in and zoom out, the dolly in and dolly out are well done and tells a story on its own and adds to the tension or the humor of the scene. The continuity is seamless and the scenes are coherent and the humor comes fast that makes the audience laugh without feeling dull because the script are well-written and the film did not just rely on one aspect of the film to make the comedy effective.
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Levinson made a wise decision in not providing everything on screen like phone conversations and the other person on the line, the public reaction with the scandal and the war, the president and other essential scenarios. This was done to allow the audiences to yearn because an imagined image is more powerful unlike a visible image that gives satisfaction. Also, this style of filmmaking supplies intrigue and generates involvement from the audiences. (Williams, 154)
The blocking of the characters in the film and the placement of the camera vis-avis the character works well to highlight the conversation and the messages that the film wants to get through and the necessary response that it wants from the audiences. The mise-en-scene of the film coordinated the spatial elements in every shot that consequentially created rational surroundings for the characters that added to the narrative power. Just by looking at the characters, their facial reactions and the camera movements, even if the sound is taken away the film will still send its message across.
The camera has told another story about the characters without the use of words and has done what cuts cannot achieve by making the cinematic space complete and closer to reality. The characters are merely a piece in the scenario and the mise-en-scene and the camera is what makes the protagonist and the antagonist bleed out in a scene populated by a sea of people. The mise-en-scene is also able to take the audiences into the era the film is pertaining to with it hue colors with brownish sepia tone which gives the feel of the 80’s and 90’s. (Williams, 154)
The auditory and cinematic space of the film also complement each other. The visuals being stunning matched with great music is definitely what makes a good comedy. The film also remained true to its nature and maintained its consistency throughout the film in underlining the measures that the government will go through in order to achieve what they want and how the citizens are just pawns in their game. The title of the film has been perceived as a symbolism and was submitted to different interpretations. One would say that the tail is the media with the tail being the political campaigns. The interpretation that is most likely to be associated with the title is that the citizens of America are represented by the dog and the government is the tail, thus the irony of “the tail wagging the dog”. This is probably referring to the movie’s premise wherein a greater catastrophe is given birth by something that is as small as a sex scandal compared to a war.
Halfway through the film, although it can be a bit dragging, the film never faltered in giving what the audiences expected and delivering its promise but still suspends some factors for the audience’s imaginations. It did not perceive its audiences as slow and dim-witted relevant because it does not explain itself. The film is also fearless in creating a film which is a social commentary that satirically attacks the political system. The film is, without a doubt socially relevant and historically significant.
Wag the Dog is, in all likelihood a great film with a comic sensibility that takes on the political and media dilemma that is entirely original when it comes to its overall atmosphere without the feeling that neither the characters nor the director is overanalyzing the plot. The film is rich in content and the plot is logical that included an ensemble of great cast that gave compelling performances. The plot resembles scepticism and the ambiance of the film brings to mind the film “Dr. Strangelove”.
Levinson succeeds in creating a character-driven film wherein the plot becomes a backdrop for the characters rather than the vice-versa. With an ensemble of great actors that gave a splendid performance, the film becomes relatable and more believable that audiences tend to think twice making the film a social commentary, a black comedy and also a cautionary tale of the potential dangers that could result from a political-induced media frenzy. (Mandissa, 90)
Although the film is a comedy, it is straightforward and the splendid acting supported by the seamless continuity of the scenes and the smooth-flowing dialogues adds to the realistic aspects of the film that stirs the minds of the audiences if what they are watching is based on true events and if not, its possibility that this could happen in real life or has already happened or is happening right now. The film is shocking and an eye-opened that is trying to prove the human error in the political system and the media billed as credible.
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