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Film / Wag the Dog

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"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 black comedy film, co-written by David Mamet and directed by Barry Levinson.

The President of the United States (Michael Belson) 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 (Woody Harrelson) 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.


  • 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?
    Ames: Nothing.
    Brean: See? They keep to themselves. Shifty. Untrustable.
  • Adam Westing: Willie Nelson shows up as a thinly veiled copy of himself, portrayed as a redneck corporate sellout who never actually manages to complete a song they want him to record.
  • Affably Evil: Conrad Brean is friendly and soft-spoken. He's also a ruthless, amoral political operative who will stop at nothing (even murder) to achieve his aims.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Possibly a coincidence, but Motss is an acronym that has significant meaning in certain circles...
  • Artistic License – Awards: Motss repeatedly rants that there is no Oscar for producing. However, the producer is the one who receives the award for Best Film. The implication being that Motss hates there is no specific "Best Producer of the Year, everyone else can suck it" award and the Best Film is a "team effort" award, so to speak.
  • AstroTurf: The main characters create a fake grassroots campaign of support for William "Old Shoe" Schumann.
  • Award-Bait Song: Viciously skewered with "The American Dream".
  • 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 Rape: Willie Schumann gets rather...amorous when he sees a farmer's overweight daughter in tight shorts after not taking his meds. Unsurprisingly, this gets him shot by her father.
  • Catchphrase: Motss laughing, "This is nothing!"
  • Caught by Arrogance: At the end of the film, Motss is absolutely furious that the president's bumbling campaign team and their genuinely awful campaign ads are getting all the credit for the president's reelection, while Motss will never be able to reveal the truth about his role in creating the fake war story. He declares that he's going to tell the truth about what happened... and promptly suffers a fatal "heart attack".
  • Dude, Not Funny! In-Universe: No one is amused by Johnny Dean's musical riff on the President's sexual escapades.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Stanley compares being a movie producer to being a plumber: "do your job right and nobody should notice. But when you fuck it up, everything gets full of shit."
  • Everyone Knows Morse: "Old Shoe" ripped Morse code into his shirt.
  • Executive Meddling: An In-Universe example. During the filming of the fake footage of the Albanian war, Motss wants to have the refugee holding a calico kitten as she's seen "escaping", but when the President is informed of this during filming he insists for whatever reason that the kitten be white. Motss is less than pleased to say the least.
  • The Faceless: 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.
  • From Bad to Worse: At the very end of the film, but 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.
  • Genghis Gambit: The plan to manufacture a war with Albania distracts the media from the president's scandals, but it also unites the country around its current leader against the foreign enemy.
  • Hope Spot: After Willie Schumann gets shot the first time, Motss stares at the body and excitedly yells to the others that the man's still alive, only to be cut off by a second gunshot.
  • 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", Motss 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 AstroTurf memorial by throwing tennis shoes in trees.
  • 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. He also complains at one point that there are no Academy Awards for producers - the producer gets to take home the "Best Picture" Oscar, sure, but that one's a "team effort" award, so to speak.
  • 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's 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.
  • Papa Wolf: One of these becomes a pretty big Spanner in the Works when he sees the mentally ill man poached to serve as "Schumann" trying to molest his daughter and blows him away with a shotgun... and then gives him a Coup de Grâce when Motss points out (with very short-lived relief) that he's not dead yet.
  • 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.
  • Propaganda Piece: "The American Dream" is a song that about protecting US borders from immigrants.
  • 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 farmer that rescues them after the plane crash actually turns out to be an illegal immigrant. The next scene shows him being fast-tracked into US Citizenship.
    • The terrible "You don't change horses in midstream" ads and how much Motss hates them.
    • Another one involving Motss is how he wishes he had an Oscar, or at least had received credit at them.
    • Willie Nelson's character singing songs about the things he was hired to help distract from.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: "When the fit hits the shan" was, famously, the line that inspired Roger Zelazny to write Lord of Light. Since a proposed film version was part of the CIA operation to rescue hostages from the Iranian embassy siege in 1979 (as dramatised in Argo), it may be a subtle hint as to this film's real life inspiration.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Subverted. After a particularly devious play in their campaign to create a fake war, the Motss remarks to Brean, "I'll bet you're great at chess." Brean 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 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.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Despite Brean's repeated warnings that anyone who revealed any detail of the coverup to the public would be killed, Motss, at the end, vocally insists he be given credit for the whole operation and threatens to expose the fake war towards this end. It's strongly implied he's murdered as a result.
  • 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.
  • 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.