University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
“Wag the Dog” The Movie
Wag the Dog is a movie that demonstrates the power that media has in our society and the ways it affects it. Through the movie we see how media manipulates people’s thoughts, believes and the ways they interact. Barry Levinson, the director of the movie, emphasizes the importance of active media consumption as he shows us that everything we see in news these days could be just an illusion easily created in Hollywood production. Also, it presents Machiavelli’s idea of power and keeping that power by any means, described in his piece “The Prince”. At the beginning of the movie Levinson provides an explanation of the title with the quote: “Why does the dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog. ”The “tail” wagging the “dog” symbolizes those who control the media, and the “dog” which lets itself be waged by its own tail represents American people. What Wag the Dog doesn’t show, but what we should realize, is that real life events can be staged more easily than the hoaxes in the movie. The plot of the movie starts two weeks before reelections. The President of United States gets involved in a sex scandal, so his team reaches out to Conrad Brean, a well-known public relations expert. Conrad helps them create a bigger story that will drive public’s attention away from the scandal.
In collaboration with Winfred Ames, Conrad comes to an idea to create a fake war with Albania. In order to create the story more believable he hires Stanley Moss, a Hollywood producer who creates a fake video footage of the war in Albania and decides to spread a rumor of a suitcase bomb located in Canada. The plan setbacks when Senator John Neal, who is also running in the elections, appears on the news and declares that the war is over. At that point Stanley comes up with the most “realistic proof” of the war and present the nation their hero. A soldier, a patriot named “old shoe” for his mild character, a man called- Schumann. While his arrival back in the States is spasmodically expected by the public, Conrad and his entourage face another setback. They find out that their “soldier” is actually a convict guilty of raping a nun. Thought the trip they have to make sure he takes his drugs in order to stay come and doesn’t turn aggressive. Nevertheless, after their plane crashed and they ended up at the bar in the middle of nowhere, Schumann tries to rape a daughter of the owner. In the meantime, the bar owner, heard the cries of his daughter, and he intervenes to save her pointing a rifle. He explodes two fatal shots, which kill Schumann. When they came back to DC Conrad and Stanley settled up an official ceremony and announced that Schumann died as a war hero, with his coffin draped in the flag with stars and stripes.
The themes in Wag the Dog can be related to the main ideas of classical realism and postmodern/constructivist ideas (media deception, immersion). The best way to analyze this movie is to take it from an individual level. Classical realism states that States are made of people, and these people have certain characteristics that give a negative conception of the state itself. In fact realists have a pessimistic view of human nature. Moreover, Wag the Dog presents ideas that Machiavelli explained in The Prince: “the end justify the mean” saying that the security of the state justifies any means necessary to achieve that end. The “mean” described by Machiavelli in the movie is represented by the media. Conrad and Stanley are able to create a scenario based on what people expect to see, a country that can possibly have terrorists. Conrad is able to use the best part of the media- delivering information, and spreading a rumor about a possible war. In fact another major theme in the movie is the power held by the people. The president, even if he is the president, takes orders and does whatever he is told to do. At the end of the movie Conrad becomes himself the representation of the Prince that expresses his power on the people and on Stanley too. When Stanley tried to tell the world that he was the producer of the biggest illusion that American people have ever witnessed, Conrad got him killed, showing once again that strength and violence are important to maintain peace.
A media presentation is merely a simulation of the real thing or event. It represents only certain character or aspects of what actually happened. Referring to constructivist ideas, the media decides what they show, so they can decide what perception they want to create in the viewer’s mind. This means that the media can essentially spin a story however they like and this concept is also known as media deception. Throughout the film, we are constantly reminded of the power of media, because there are many scenes where people are glued to the television screen or intently listening to the radio. These people are perfect example of passive media consumption because they do not engage, interact, or question the news they’re getting. If they were more active in viewing the news, there was a good chance that they would have found out that there was something suspicious about the sudden war with Albania.
The whole story about the people of America re-electing the President because of the false information constructed through the media, based on the President’s scheme of staging a war and winning it is a perfect example of constructivism. Constructivism places great emphasis on the role that ideas and beliefs play in shaping our understanding of the world.In Wag the Dog President was reelected because he created the illusion of a war that represented him as a big patriot, protector of his country and a man capable of preserving national security. Another Constructivist Idea shown in the movie is Baudrillard’s idea of immersion which suggests that we don’t choose to consume media, but we don’t have a choice and we are subjected to it and influenced without consent. In this movie the American people were immersed in media passively instead of actively which means that they were not actively pursuing news sources in order to gather information. Instead they were taking in news without questioning its reliability or credibility.
Wag the Dog is a perfect example that should show people that it is possible to trick an entire country by using the idea of classical realism and postmodern/constructive thoughts and apply them to the real world. Public should be an active, thoughtful consumer of news and wag the tail, instead because we became more passive we get waged. Furthermore what movie has shown is that the two main characters a Washington fixer and Hollywood producer fit like hand and glow. This should show us that that the government sales the news to people in the same way that Hollywood sales their movies. After watching this movie everyone should wonder what is true and what is not and engage in active media consumption, due to the fact that everyone in the movie both the story about the war that never really happened.