Watching Wag the Dog in 2020 Is Almost Comforting

In the ’90s, Barry Levinson’s satire played as pitch-black. Now you might want to live in it.

Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog
Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog. New Line Cinema

It’s Wag the Dog season in Washington again. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian general Qassem Soleimani earlier this month, the title of Barry Levinson’s 1997 dark political comedy has been invoked in dozens of articles suggesting that Trump fomented a military crisis in order to distract from his ongoing impeachment. The notion got an added boost last week thanks to a Wall Street Journal story reporting that Trump “told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial.”

The phrase “tail wagging the dog” predated the movie, but it took on its current specific meaning in the political lexicon—concocting a national security crisis to distract from a domestic scandal—just months after it was released, when Bill Clinton ordered strikes on alleged al-Qaida targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (Making things worse, the Sudan strike turned out to have been based on questionable intelligence.) Clinton would be accused of wagging the dog again as the impeachment saga wore on, with the 1998 bombing campaign in Iraq and then NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump—on earlier occasions as well as this one—have all been accused of wagging the dog at various points.

Like Gaslight, The Manchurian Candidate, or The Ugly American, Wag the Dog birthed a concept that has taken on a political afterlife independent from the work it was originally associated with. But I was curious how the actual film held up, more than two decades and a thousand political lifetimes after it came out. It mostly does, but in other respects, reality has become far darker and more absurd than its makers could have ever imagined.

To briefly recap, the film begins with a fictional president (he’s never named and his face is never shown, but they might has well have just called him “Will Blinton”) being accused of sexual misconduct with a visiting Girl Scout in the Oval Office, with just days to go in a close reelection fight. A shadowy political fixer (Robert De Niro) and a White House aide (Anne Heche) enlist the help of a legendary Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to concoct a fake war to distract the American public until Election Day. The team invents a fake national security crisis involving the nonexistent B-3 bomber, a plot by Albanian terrorists to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the U.S., and later a hostage crisis involving a U.S. special forces operator caught behind enemy lines in Albania.

Why Albania?, Heche wonders early on. “What did they ever do to us?” “What did they ever do for us?” quips De Niro.

Pushed along by David Mamet’s snappy dialogue, the action unfolds at a rapid clip, with the pace and structure of a heist movie as the main characters assemble a team of oddballs to pull off the big job. Hoffman was clearly having a blast playing a character widely thought to be based on the late Godfather producer Robert Evans. De Niro’s unbreakable deadpan kicked off his unlikely turn-of-the-century run as a comedy star. The stacked supporting cast includes Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson (!), and a very early performance by Kirsten Dunst.

It’s all still a lot of fun, and the satire still has bite. While it will be forever linked to the Lewinsky era in the popular imagination, it seems intended more as a response to the government media manipulation—and mass public jingoism—of the first Gulf War, the first major U.S. conflict of the cable era. Much of it also feels quite prophetic.

Twenty years before #MeToo, Wag the Dog depicts the extreme lengths to which powerful men (and some women) will go to protect even more powerful men from sexual misconduct allegations. (Hoffman himself has faced multiple such allegations, though his lawyer denies them.) A scene in which the characters debate whether a Tostitos bag should be replaced with a white or calico kitten in footage of Dunst posing as an Albanian refugee predicts how digital image manipulation would transform political propaganda. And Leary’s “Fad King” character would be more than at home in a contemporary sendup of the corporate manipulation of meme culture.

Wag the Dog is also spot-on in showing the evermore chummy relationship between “liberal” Hollywood and the military-industrial complex. It anticipated the Bush administration’s use of marketing ideas and lingo in the rollout of the Iraq war. (“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August,” White House chief of staff Andrew Card infamously said about their strategy to confront Saddam Hussein in 2002—a line that might have felt heavy-handed in this movie.) Like EdTV and The Truman Show, which came out around the same time, it presages the rise of reality TV—in this case the unholy fusion it would form with politics. De Niro and Hoffman’s hijinks are hard to watch today without thinking of a certain Hollywood player turned far-right political impresario, not to mention a certain reality star turned president.

But while, in an era whose defining Hollywood depiction of the presidency was Bill Pullman fighting aliens, Wag the Dog felt like a “poison-tipped political satire,” today, several aspects of it feel almost idealistic.

The main one is that it never seems to occur to anyone in the film that rather than their complicated, secretive effort to sell the public on a fake war, it might be easier just to launch a real one. (In what may be the film’s most dated line, Heche suggests they “can’t afford” an actual military action.) This is where the alleged real-world incidences of “wagging the dog” depart most dramatically from the film: They all involved not faking a war but actually killing people.

And like all conspiracy movies, this one assumes a stunning level of competence from political leaders. The notion the White House would be able to pull off a cover-up on this scale feels almost comforting amid the sheer level of confusion and halfhearted justifications on display in America’s most recent military crisis.

Ultimately, Wag the Dog’s premise makes much more sense in a nation at peace. U.S. troops have now been deployed in combat for 18 years, and while military crises do occasionally make news, as one did this month, they are quickly subsumed back into the churn of the news cycle and viewed by most Americans through the prism of partisan politics. If Trump really was hoping his Iran gambit would make impeachment disappear or meaningfully shift his poll numbers, he’s probably already disappointed with the results.

The notion that Americans would be so galvanized by a military crisis that they would come together and forget about day-to-day partisan politics feels as dated today as Wag the Dog’s satire of a bigwig Hollywood producer as a flamboyant wannabe auteur rather than a bean-counting intellectual property manager. In today’s America, war isn’t an Oscar-chasing prestige picture like the kind Hoffman’s character is known for. It’s a franchise.