Wag the Dog

This article refers to Wag the Dog (film) directed by Barry Levinson. It focuses specifically on the relationship between the text and the context Whose Reality?.

The following is the transcript of a video to be released soon. Watch this space!


Today we’re discussing the film Wag the Dog directed by Barry Levinson in relation to Whose Reality. If this isn’t one of your texts, or you haven’t watched our video on Whose Reality yet – stop! – go watch that first and come back.

There are four possible texts you could be studying for Whose Reality?, of which this is one. Make sure you’re not watching videos for texts you’re not studying.

While you can’t mimic the style of the film for your context writing, you should still be aware of a few cinematic techniques. You definitely don’t need to know all of these but being able to discuss some of them will deepen your analysis. Some key techniques to look for and analyse include sound and the use of sound effects, different types of “shots” (including establishing shots – which are used as segues between scenes), scene transitions, camera angles, lighting – which characters or props are well lit and which aren’t and finally, framing – what is included in a particular shot and what is excluded.

Creating reality for others

Wag the Dog engages extensively with the idea that one person is capable of constructing reality for others. We literally follow a team of people who are carefully putting together the reality that others are meant to accept as truth, and act on in the form of voting for the president at the upcoming election.

The opening of the film grounds itself in a world where reality is unsure, and capable of being manipulated. Conrad Brean has been brought in specifically to “fix” the president’s PR problem; and his plan to do so is completely based in changing the news-cycle through false reports to the media. This film completely questions the notion of political reporting: it draws parallels with how movies are made and highlights how the public’s (unlike the audience’s) perception of politics is entirely based on the information fed to them through the media. Brean’s decision to go straight to a Hollywood producer to “produce a war” emphasises the idea that what the public see is a carefully constructed fantasy.

In particular, the scene with Tracy Lime (the fake terrorism victim) is a powerful portrayal of how reality can be constructed. From the colour of the kitten to the cued sounds of screaming, the team produces the reality that best suits it. The men make careful decisions on a green screen to put together the image that the public will see and accept as reality: a manipulated reality that then creates reality in the form of people’s responses to the war (such as the school spontaneously throwing their shoes onto the basketball court in support of “Old Shoe”).

The film is punctuated by news casts that portray the false reality that is being constructed for the public. Just as Brean suggests that things should look (the rain, the president handing an elderly woman his coat, etc) they play out a scene or two later. What would otherwise appear to the audience as an ordinary newscast, appears instead as comical in its falseness, because we are on the inside of the construction.

The point-of-view of the audience is significant in this film. We are made critically aware of the fact that, normally, we would accept the reality that the team are creating. In this case, however, we are following the team constructing the reality. At times the action of the people buying this false reality seem foolish: after all, we see how ridiculously fake it is! And yet, we are constantly being reminded by the characters that the reality is believable, such as when Stanley Motss looking out at the funeral of Old Shoe says “look at that! That is a complete fraud and it looks 100% real.” We are not allowed to forget that, as ridiculous as this entire concept seems, perhaps we are being fooled daily by the media/political spin-doctors in a not-so-different fashion than what we are watching play out in the film.

Critique of the political system

In this way, the film forms a critique of political spin-doctoring. We are both critically aware that we would have accepted the false reality the team constructs had we not see them construct it, and are made to notice the complete lack of real politics behind the election: we never see the face of the president and we know he buys into this process through his banal suggestion on the phone to change the kitten from calico to white in Tracy’s shoot. This comes to a head after the plane crashes in rural America, expressed through the words of Winifred Ames:

Conrad Brean: “What did television ever do to you?”

Winifred Ames: “It destroyed the electoral process.”

We are left with a sense of disappointment about what politics has become. One of the last newscasts we see is an interviewer suggesting that “the president is a product” and the repetition of “commercials, commercials, commercials”. This interview concludes with a statement that perhaps sums up what the film is trying to say about the political process in the media spotlight: “it’s time the American people began to look at that.”

Critique of patriotism

Equally, this comment allows the film to be critical of aggressive patriotism, such as that displayed in each of the songs Johnny Dean writes for the team. Because the people buying into the false reality are at times made to look foolish, and we are aware of the commentary being made on the political process, we begin to see jingoism (meaning aggressive patriotism) as somehow disconcerting. At points, the film almost seems to be asking “is this what America is now?” such as when the American flag reflects in the window that Brean is looking out of to watch Motss be led away to his inevitable death. Politics is a brutal game: throughout the film it has maimed reality, and now it is eating one of the very men that gave birth to the warped perception of reality held by the American people.

Subjectivity of reality

This idea is emphasised throughout this film by the singular perspective that it is told from. We only see one side of the story: the reality-manipulators, not the American public and not the Albanians. We see the team make decisions, and then a false reality be constructed around that decision without witnessing how that false reality is taken in by those who do not know it to be false. Furthermore, while we are capable of understanding why the American people believe that which we know to be false, and to an extent realise that we would have accepted it as well had we not had this behind-the-scenes look, we cannot see what they see as anything but fake–a fantasy. We are not able to watch the newscasts that they see throughout the film from their perspective: we know it is false and so it inevitably looks foolish to us. The singular perspective therefore serves to reinforce that human beings are only ever capable of seeing things from where they stand, the audience included.