Wag the Dog (1997) – An Exercise in Meta-Propaganda

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By: Jay Dyer

Wag the Dog(1997) is one of those 90s movies you somehow missed.  I don’t know how I did, but I recently  came across it looking for something along the lines of propaganda and psychological warfare in film, and boy was I in for a treat.  Wag the Dog is dark satire and is far more than I expected it to be.  The film is about private intelligence consultants/marketing experts creating a fake war as a distraction during a presidential candidate’s re-election that is racked by scandal. Robert deNiro plays Conrad Brean, “Mr. Fix It,” the intelligence/media manipulator hired to create a big distraction that ends up being a fake war with “Albanian fundamentalist terrorists.”  There are several people this might be, and it could also be a composite, but given his hat and appearance, E. Howard Hunt immediately comes to mind, though the timing is off. While most analyses of the film would focus on the film’s narrative itself as an expose, which is true as far as it goes, I”d like to take a step back and point out that it is more than that.  It’s an example of what I’d call meta-propaganda, in the sense that metanarrative in the study of Shakespeare involves a story about the process of writing a story, so with Wag the Dog we have an example of meta-propaganda.  The film is itself propaganda about the process of making propaganda.  This is the secret power and effect of predictive programming: hoodwinking a unknowing mass populace into accepting a manipulation of archetypes and emotional images that produce a desired effect.  The chief medium of this craftworking is film and news.

Brean and companion Winifred Ames (played by Anne Heche) concoct the idea to create a war by hiring a bigtime Hollywood producer, Stanley Motts (played by Hoffman), to script and direct the war.  The war, however, will not exist in any sense, but is shot on a green screen with actors and the latest CGI effects to create an emotional propaganda effect.  One of the best scenes is the production of the fake young Albanian girl (played by Kristen Dunst) carrying a bag of Tostito’s (since they can’t find a kitten).  A Calico cat is then added, with bombings and gunshots superimposed in the background.  While one might balk at such an idea, allow me to remind you that the film is basically a composite of the last twenty years of propaganda and political machinations.  Presidential sex scandals and elections are really about inside shadow government workings, and much of the war and terror propaganda is just that – propaganda.  The events and narratives are literally scripted, as they are in the film.  Thus enters the metapropaganda aspect.

Dustin Hoffman as Stanley Motts. 'War is showbusiness.'

Dustin Hoffman as Stanley Motts. ‘War is showbusiness.’

Throughout the film, genius screenwriter David Mamet drops countless hints as to what is really going on.  We see the characters making insightful comments such as follows:

“It’s all a pageant.”

“They want to destroy our way of life.”

‘We just found out they have the bomb.  It’s a suitcase bomb.”

“The Albanian terrorists have placed a suitcase bomb in Canada.”

“Nuclear terrorism is the future.”

Following the exchange between Brean and Motts, a crew of actors and celebrities are brought in to promote the war, including Willie Nelson, who conducts a hilarious, racially-integrated “We Are The World” style song (“The American Dream”) geared towards promoting the war as the defense of “American freedom” and “democracy.”  Can anyone say, “Toby Keith”?  They even sell merchandise for the war.

Apparently several of the genius commenters at Youtube fail to realize this is satire.  As Motts scripts the events, he jokes that the “First Act” will be the Albanian response: “They deny everything.”  This brings to mind the famous Kissinger clip prior to the invasion of Libya during the Egyptian unrest, that it was the first act of a play.  The film is therefore genius in its presentation of dark satire and the scripted nature of reality, and I think functions on an even deeper level as meta-propaganda.  The viewer is being shown how the propaganda is created, while simultaneously functioning in the world where this is exactly how the propaganda is created.  In other words, the film is fiction, but is true, leaving the viewer with the idea that truth is fiction, and fiction is truth, subconsciously.  This is precisely the best form of manipulation because it is so subtle and functions on so many levels.  It is also not overly complex, though it may give the impression of being “deep.”  On the contrary, the truth is very simple: the establishment creates a false reality everyone believes, by placing that false reality in fiction, that then becomes reality.  This is what my thesis was on: look around you and see that it works.  Consider, too, this excellent video showing the Wag the Dog process.

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