"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."Wag the Dog
is a 1997 political film, directed by Barry Levinson
. The President of the United States is caught making sexual advances to an underage "Firefly Girl
" (the fictional equivalent of a Girl Scout). His timing could not be worse, as there is a presidential election coming up. Presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche
) and professional spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro
) are tasked with taking the public attention away from the scandal.
Conrad decides to create a fictional war with Albania. He recruits Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman
) to create the illusion of the ongoing war. Actors play war orphans, an army convict is cast as a war hero, etc. All broadcast by American networks as real news. They take advantage of the relative obscurity of Albania among the public to make up details as they go.
This film was actually not Ripped from the Headlines
, because said headlines happened the next year.
This title is, of course, unrelated to Tropey the Wonder Dog
- Academy Award: Inverted in-universe; Motss has produced the Oscars, but never won one. However, Motss repeatedly says that there is no Academy Award for producing...even though the producer is the one who receives the award for Best Picture.
- Acceptable Targets: In-universe, the Albanians are this.
Ames: Why Albania?
Brean: Why not?
Ames: What have they done to us?
Brean: What have they done for us? What do you know about them?
Brean: See? They keep to themselves. Shifty. Untrustable.
- Astro Turf: The main characters create a fake grassroots campaign of support for William "Old Shoe" Schumann.
- The Barnum: Conrad has based his entire career on this trope (well... that, and killing people). Stanley and Winifred evolve into this type.
- Black Comedy
- Catch Phrase: Motss laughing, "This is nothing!"
- Dude, Not Funny! In-Universe: No one is amused by Johnny Dean's musical riff on the President's sexual escapades.
- Everyone Knows Morse: "Old Shoe" ripped Morse code into his shirt.
- Indy Ploy: Sort of done by the spin man, as he has to gauge the media's reaction and then feed them.
- Insistent Terminology:
Conrad Brean: We want you to produce.
Stanley Motss: You want me to produce your war?
Conrad Brean: It's not a war, it's a pageant. We need a theme, a song, some visuals - it's a pageant.
- Invented Individual: To make the entirely fake war in Albania more "real" Hollywood director Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) creates the personality of a special operations soldier: "Old Shoe". A series of setbacks (including the fact that the person they used died before his staged return) forces them to explain his death. They even mount an Astro Turf memorial by throwing tennis shoes in trees.
- Invisible President: The film almost always has the main characters talking to "the president" on the phone. The one time the President is on camera, he is in shadows and seen from the back only. On the other hand, his opponent is frequently shown in TV ads and on talk shows. His name isn't said either- his campaign ads just have 'Re-elect the President' as a tag line.
- It's All About Me: Motss goes off the deep end by the end of the film, ranting about how he'll tell the media everything because he wants the credit for pulling it off, not the reward he was offered. He's so insulted that he hasn't got any prestige or media attention that he shrugs off Brean's warnings and makes it clear that he wants everyone to know. And it gets him killed.
- Karma Houdini: Brean and Ames succeed in their scheme to spin attention away from the President's scandal.
- Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Chillingly portrayed: Motss refuses to keep quiet about the fake war, and in the next scene, he's reported as having died of a heart attack in his estate.
- Line-of-Sight Name: How Stanley comes up with "Old Shoe's" unit number: It's 3:03 PM, so Old Shoe was a proud member of the 303!
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Dustin Hoffman based Motss look and mannerisms on real-world producer Robert Evans. Evans is said to have joked on occasion that he was really good in that film.
- Post Mortem Conversion: The propaganda spin-doctors turn a mentally ill rapist into a faked war hero. When they can't control him, they get him killed. This is a huge improvement for them, since his corpse is easy to control. Public burial of the "hero" ensues.
- P.O.V. Sequel: Producer Stanley Motss claims to have made an extremely successful film re-telling Moby Dick from the perspective of the white whale.
- Running Both Sides: Political advisers attempt to create an "artificial war" — and trick the public into thinking it's the real thing.
- Running Gag:
- Despite being knee-deep in a cover-up that has far wider implications, Winifred is more obsessed with ensuring there are no illegal immigrants involved.
- The terrible "You don't change horses in midstream" ads and how much Motts hates them.
- Another one involving Motss is how he wishes he had an Oscar, or at least had received credit at them.
- Scary Black Man: The bald special agent wearing black Ray Ban sunglasses. He shows up in only two shots with perhaps a grand total of five seconds of screen time and only says one or two unintelligible words. But that's still enough to make it clear that he's very bad news.
- Scout Out: The scandal that prompts the plot to happen involves a "Firefly Girl" that the President is accused of fondling just fourteen days before election time.
- Smart People Play Chess: Subverted. After a particularly devious play in their campaign to create a fake war, the film producer remarks to the spin doctor, "I'll bet you're great at chess." The spin doctor replies, "I would be, if I could remember how all the pieces moved."
- Spoonerism: Agent Young facetiously says "when the fit hits the shan" when he confronts Conrad.
- Stylistic Suck: The President's awful, awful campaign ads.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: Quickly pressed into vinyl and smuggled into the Library of Congress.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: Invoked. Brean tells one of the president's staff to make one of these to the press, saying that the reason the president is late returning home has absolutely nothing to do with the B-3 bomber or the situation in Albania. And right after that, that they misspoke and that there is no such plane and no situation. The results are predictable, and pretty soon everybody's attention is focused on finding out what's going on in Albania instead of on the girl.
- The Unreveal: We never get to know if the president did, in fact, have sex with the Firefly Girl.
- You sure you wanna know?
- There's another example: at the end of the film, there's a news flash telling us that an Albanian terrorist organisation has claimed responsibility for a recent bombing. We don't find out if it's real or fake, who's running things now that Motss is dead, or why, if it's real, they'd want the war to continue.
- Villain Protagonist: The main characters, and also, the President. Motss, Brean and Ames, no matter how loveable their characters come off, are still despicable people manipulating the American public to protect a President who was caught trying to make a pass at a young girl. The fact that several people end up dead as a result of their actions, and that they get away with it, only underlines the point.
- War for Fun and Profit: Toyed with. The President gets a sex scandal swept under the rug and even improves his approval rating, all because of a war. With the twist that there never actually is a war as far as the viewers know. There may be fighting going on off screen, or there may not at all. We don't know, because it doesn't matter and nobody cares. What's important are the photo ops, the slogans and the huge PR spin.
- What Could Have Been: The original novel, American Hero, involved George H.W. Bush starting the actual Gulf War, scripted by Hollywood screenwriters with Saddam Hussein agreeing to it in exchange for secret payments and the boost to his reputation for fighting America.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: Constantly. Almost every plan Stanley and Conrad come up with once the film gets going backfires hugely, leading to a frantic chain of improvisation.