Strange Bedfellow

It’s a Wonderful Conspiracy

Hollywood looks at Washington and sees its own reflection.

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Illustration by Peter Kuper

You can just about imagine the pitch meeting for Barry Levinson’s clever new movie, Wag the Dog. It’s a Paula Jones-meets-the-Gulf War kind of deal. Just 11 days before the presidential election, a major scandal breaks. A young girl accuses the president of having molested her during a White House tour. Robert De Niro plays Conrad Brean, a jaded political consultant who is called out of retirement to rescue the incumbent. Brean isn’t interested in whether the girl’s accusation is true or not. It’s a story, which he needs to smother with a bigger story–a fake war with Albania. For help generating the war, he flies to Los Angeles to recruit big-time movie producer Stanley Motss, brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman. In an early scene (PC, Mac), the consultant explains to the producer that real events work just like invented ones. Washington and Hollywood are in the same business.

This is parody, of course, not explicit commentary. When Brean wants to show off to Motss, he flicks on his tiny cell phone and beams a message directly into the earpiece of the White House press secretary, who is in midsentence at a press conference. The flack mouths the words (PC, Mac) injected into his head. But despite being a satire, Wag the Dog embodies an analysis of Washington that is fairly typical of the better class of political movie. The view is conspiratorial, not in the strung-out, scandalized manner of Oliver Stone’s JFK but in a cool, ironic way. That a secret government runs the show is just a fact of life–people who get excited about it are ridiculous. Connected to this hip paranoia is an equally jaded belief that politics is merely the art of media manipulation. Fed a compelling diet of music and images, the consultant and the producer agree, a docile and credulous public will go for just about anything.

Asimilar message comes through in almost every recent Washington movie. In Dave, the gimmick is a look-alike who becomes president after the real president has a stroke atop a bimbo. In this scene (PC, Mac), Kevin Kline preps with the coup plotters to fool his own Cabinet. The film takes its biggest wink in the scene where Oliver Stone, playing himself in a cameo, tries to convince a skeptical Larry King that the president’s appearance has changed slightly since his stroke. (“Do you think you’re a little paranoid?” King asks him.) In Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins plays a right-wing folk singer running for the Senate with the help of a rogue ex-CIA agent. A frightening demagogue, Roberts whips crowds into a nationalistic frenzy with anti-’60s protest songs like “Drugs Stink” (PC, Mac). He subsequently wins the election after staging a fake assassination attempt. My Fellow Americans is much cruder. We never understand why the president (Dan Aykroyd) is trying to have two ex-presidents (Jack Lemmon and James Garner) killed. The two hate each other’s guts, but wind up as buddies trying to escape their successor (PC, Mac).

There’s a good excuse for all this paranoia–it’s a great plot device. The one recent movie that presents something resembling an accurate view of Washington, An American President, is cloying and tedious. This scene (PC, Mac), in which an environmental interest group moves to hire an outside lobbyist, might have been based on an article from the National Journal. But the more usual conspiratorial refrain can’t be dismissed as a mere narrative technique. It expresses the way Hollywood understands Washington.

Hollywood falls prey to paranoia because it’s easy. If you don’t have the patience to try to understand politics or aren’t really interested, conspiracy allows you to seem sophisticated. It’s a dumb person’s way of seeming smart. My colleague Mickey Kaus proposes an additional hypothesis. Much that happens in Hollywood is attributable to conspiracies of a kind. The fact that Producer X is sleeping with Starlet Y really does explain why she gets a big part in Director Z’s new movie. A film gets made, or doesn’t, because of Geffen’s rivalry with Ovitz, or Turner’s with Murdoch. In portraying Washington this way, those in the movie business are depicting their political culture, not ours.

The other component of Hollywood’s view of Washington is that politics is a species of show business. “It’s all a change of wardrobe,” Hoffman’s character opines in Wag the Dog as he emerges from the Oval Office. This notion seems to have taken deep root when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Reagan used his acting skills as governing ones; he was accused of confusing art and life, remembering scenes from the movies as if they’d really happened. Because Reagan’s politics were conservative, Hollywood couldn’t believe he was legitimately popular. It had to be a trick. The argument was that he’d brainwashed the country with smoke and mirrors, artifice and stagecraft. The problem with the view that politics is merely the effective manipulation of images is that it inflates a minor consideration into the whole ballgame. It makes democracy irrelevant, while discounting the single most important motivation in politics, which is conviction. But once again, you can appreciate why Hollywood sees Washington this way. Staging is one part of politics the entertainment business understands. There’s also a projection factor. Belief plays a negligible part in what people in the movie industry do, so they assume it’s the same elsewhere.

Illustration by Peter Kuper

The opinion that conspiracy and show business rule Washington exists in tension with an older, literal-minded Hollywood liberalism. The premise of The American President is a widowed president dating an environmental lobbyist. They fall in love, and the president is emboldened to do the right thing on crime and global warming. The “right thing,” of course, is to replace phony toughness with gun control and demand a larger reduction in greenhouse gases. In Dave, Kline wins the affection of first lady Sigourney Weaver by restoring funding for a homeless shelter. In almost all Washington movies, there’s an impassioned speech echoing Jimmy Stewart’s climactic filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In Dave, the president calls a press conference to announce a full-employment program. In Bob Roberts, the voice of decency is the worthy old WASP incumbent, played by Gore Vidal, who declares that politics is about reality, not illusion.

This contradiction results in disorientation for the viewer. The Capraesque idealism is in conflict with the post-Stone paranoia. Wanting to have it both ways fosters a tone of incoherence. Wag the Dog is the exception among these films in that there’s no voice of democratic decency attempting to shine through. Thanks perhaps to David Mamet, who wrote the screenplay, it doesn’t have any sentimental Mr. Smith speeches. It’s funnier than most Washington movies, and darker.