Wag the Dog (1997)
D. Barry Levinson
[Wag the Dog is a brilliant, disturbing, watershed film which never fails to reduce me to helpless giggling like the Marx Brothers did when I was twenty, even as I hear the Wolf growling in my ear–something about if you see me running you know my life is at stake. David Marcus’ brief essay is pulled-punch pablum, but it’s the first semi-coherent affirmation of points I made all last year that I’ve seen appear anywhere near the mainstream. I’m linking it because its platitudes were knowable, even obvious, twenty years ago. Until everybody done went and forgot. Read it by all means, but don’t worry, Trump’s still not the Devil you don’t believe in. He’s not even the first sign that Devil you don’t believe in has turned ’round (for that, see Wag the Dog below). He’s just the latest sign that it’s the Devil who has his hand around your throat and he doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not.]
For twenty years now, two kinds of people have existed in America (and perhaps much of the rest of the world). There are those who have seen Wag the Dog and kept it continuously in mind and those who haven’t.
The latter seem to be continuously surprised. There is always some bar or other–cultural, social, economic, political, even military (as in “surely we can’t lose this one”)–which they are shocked and saddened to learn has been once more lowered.
They’re always certain, it seems, that the last time was the last time.
The film’s director, Barry Levinson (one of America’s best for a generation when this was released, a nonentity since), refers to the film as “cynical” in his DVD commentary, which is, among other things, an interesting exercise in ass-covering.
He’s joined on the commentary track by the film’s star, Dustin Hoffman (who, like his co-stars Robert DeNiro and Anne Heche, was never better, and, like Levinson, a nonentity since), who insists “this was never about Bill Clinton.”
Because, well, his good friend Barry would never do such a thing.
Which is bull hockey and Hollywood-speak for “I’d like to keep working.”
The entire world knew it was about Clinton–and what a hapless, helpless tool he was–the minute it was released. It was about that, even if Bill Clinton never crossed anyone’s mind from first conference to final wrap. That’s how art works. sometimes, even in Hollywood.
All concerned saved their careers (such as they’ve been) by distancing themselves from this reality soon and loudly, then rinsing and repeating as necessary. Self-denial is a privilege of the self-deluded and Levinson and crew started practicing a version of what they had so acutely pilloried–wiping the blood off the knife–as soon as what was left of decency permitted.
Too bad. Because either the film is on the money–in perfect concert with the observable reality it dismembers with a surgeon’s skill–or it’s nothing.
I just watched it again last night.
Believe me, it’s not nothing.
The quality that struck with extra force this time around (the pantsing of fake news and Heche’s pixie face, whether in deep background or loving closeup, contorting into every possible nuance of sycophancy, including self-contempt, still registering mind you) was the completeness with which Levinson and his principal screenwriter, David Mamet, limned the real crisis point, which is the separation of the movers and shakers from anything and everything except the art of moving and shaking.
The back rooms and underground bunkers in Wag the Dog are so far back and so deep under that their inhabitants are cut off from any reality except their own desperate desire to maintain their status in the only world that matters: theirs.
They’ll do literally anything–just don’t banish them to the sunlight. Their only angst–which can be pitied or sneered at according to taste–is the thought of failing, punching the dread ticket out, which is why Hoffman’s signature line “This is nothing!” keeps getting funnier when it should be getting tired.
After all, what happens to people like this when they lose their agency?
It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Better to laugh…harder.
The narrative trick that keeps bringing me back, though, is that somebody–Levinson? Mamet? Hoffman? The God of Hosts?–gave an unexpected poignancy to Hoffman’s Stanley Motss (the “t” is silent!), forever worried about the one thing the inhabitants of the secret world (which, out here in the real world a generation later, everybody has taken to calling “the deep state”) cannot worry about, which is proper credit. (In this way, he’s predictive of James Comey, a man who couldn’t draw sympathy from his mother.)
And the effect is all the more powerful for being called down by a character you would hate if you met him in real life and your religion didn’t require you to seek the good in him.
The beauty of Hoffman’s performance is that his character has somehow retained the innocence Heche’s Winifred Ames, who starts out thinking she’s going to learn the little bit she doesn’t already know, spends the movie losing with astonished gusto, and De Niro’s Conrad Brean lost a thousand years ago.
Wag the Dog moves like music. You could probably watch it twenty times in a row and still hear new things in it, like picking up a bass line that moves a bridge after you’e heard a favorite record a hundred times. I don’t know if it’s the best movie made in the last twenty-five years but it’s the best movie made about the last twenty-five years. Or the next twenty-five.
After that, it’ won’t matter, and whether Trump fails to survive the summer or cruises to a 2020 landslide won’t either.
The boat has sailed.
The only fault this movie has is they didn’t know which tune to close with. But, hey, that’s what I’m here for…
Happy 4th of July!