Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Barry Levinson (director), David Mamet and Hilary Henkin (writers), Wag the Dog (1997) 

The film Wag the Dog (1997), directed by Barry Levinson and written by David Memet with contributions by Hilary Henkin, is a satire on what the filmmakers perceive to be the sorry state of electoral politics in the United States, a nation that presents itself  to the world, and to its citizens, as a beacon of democracy.  The film argues that the politics of campaigning on a platform grounded in good policy and the good character of a candidate has been displaced by marketing or  psychological manipulation (spin), which is organised by professional masters of persuasion (spin doctors).  Politics has become marketing.  The political competition between rival candidates is a competition involving the manipulation of public perceptions where truth is expendable, and the creation of scandal, or the exploitation of scandal, or the avoidance of scandal, are more important than good governance and good policy in deciding electoral contests. 

The Hollywood film industry, located in Los Angeles, is adept at creating believable characters and scenarios that manipulate emotional predispositions in the collective unconscious, such as ingrained patriotic values, sympathy for innocent civilians displaced by war, and the veneration of war heroes. In Wag the Dog, the politically powerful and amoral spin doctor, Conrad Brean, recruits talented people from Hollywood, such as the equally amoral film producer Stanley Motss, to shape public perceptions to manipulate public sentiments to mislead people for electoral purposes.  Politics is shown to use the tools of the entertainment industry for the purposes of marketing.  The lines between the entertainment media and the news media have become blurred.  Image has triumphed over substance. 

The film, by taking the cinema audience behind the scenes, or deep underground, where the important political decisions are made, seems intended  to educate its audience about how the images and content of the news media are not to be trusted and how a military crisis, or a war, can be exploited by politicians for domestic electoral advantage.  The film suggests that the manipulation of the perceptions of the voting public through the media can even involve creating fraudulently false news events (such as a concocted a war) to distract pubic and media attention from a sex scandal.  The film seems intended to leave the cinema audience sceptical about the content of the news and what can be believed, perhaps so that they accept nothing at face value.  What is assumed to be authentic war footage that is repeatedly used by media outlets can be fake, yet the audience is positioned to accept the image as true because they are predisposed to accept images as believable when they are seen in the context of news reports.

The filmmakers seem to have premised their argument on the belief that an informed and politically active public is the key to an effective democracy.    The film warns the cinema audience that widespread political apathy has surrendered too much of the power of the voters to unscrupulous political operatives who have compromised American democracy and undermined its ideals. 

Although the filmmakers were pro-Democrat and used Republican presidents as their inspiration for the political behaviour they mercilessly lampooned, the film turned out to have a somewhat prophetic quality that took these pro-Democrat filmmakers by surprise.  Months after Wag the Dog was released in 1997, President Clinton, a Democrat, became embroiled in a sex scandal over revelations of his affair with a young intern in the White House, Monica Lewinsky.  A famous widely circulated photograph of Lewinsky in a crowd and wearing a black beret while looking up admiringly at the President bore an uncanny resemblance to the fictional photograph used in the film of the fictional president greeting a ‘Firefly Girl’ with whom he allegedly had an affair.  Shortly after the scandal broke, President Clinton authorised the bombing of a chemical factory in the Sudan believed to be used by terrorists to produce weapons to be used against the United States and its allies.  A cynical analysis would have accused President Clinton of using a military incident to distract media attention from the sex scandal. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Wag the Dog meaning, Wag the Dog themes, Wag the Dog analysis, Wag the Dog notes