Wag the Dog (review)

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Art Imitates Life (Or Is It the Other Way Around?)

I’m bored already with that new Aesop’s fable, The Intern and the President (the moral of the story — “thou shalt not admit adultery” — being one we’ve heard a million times before). News flash: Old Powerful Man Sleeps With Pretty, Impressionable Young Thing. Yawn.

Is the story actually true? It doesn’t matter, does it? TV said it (and keeps saying it ad nauseum), so it must be so. And it’s because so many people think that way that Wag the Dog (starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche) is so scarily plausible.
Wag the Dog‘s prescience garnered some well-deserved guffaws from the audience I saw it with. Just before Election Day, breaking news: a teenage girl alleges that the unnamed and unseen President of the United States, er, dallied with her in a room off the Oval Office. Spinmeister Robert DeNiro needs a diversion, so with the help of presidential advisor Anne Heche and Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman, he stages a war with Albania that plays out entirely on television. Denis Leary and Andrea Martin step in as what can only be called pop-culture gurus, inventing slogans and merchandise (a la the Gulf War’s yellow ribbons) to fund it all. Willie Nelson conceives a hilariously fake old folk tune to serve as a theme song — and then there’s Army Company 303’s song (that’s Huey Lewis’s doing).

Wag the Dog is satire, no question about it — the wonderful cast positively revels in the absurdness of it all. But I gotta wonder how many people will leave the theater not realizing that the object of ridicule here is not politicians or the media but the American people.

Why Albania? DeNiro’s spin doctor is asked. His response: Why not? Nobody knows anything about Albania. And unfortunately, this is the truth. How many Americans bought the Gulf War line that the U.S. was coming to the aid of a democratic Kuwait? How many Americans knew then or know now that only 15 percent of Kuwaiti citizens are eligible to vote?

It’s easy to blame the media: Boo hoo, they lied to us! But unless and until news consumers are able to discern truth from fiction and hold the media accountable, nothing will change. And I firmly believe that most people don’t care whether a news story is true or not, as long as it’s entertaining. Which why news is all blood and guts and body counts and scandal and never tough, complicated stories about the things that really affect us all — in-depth studies of politics and legislation, the search for solutions for poverty and crime and illiteracy, and so on.

The only people that seem to care about the truth these days are conspiracy buffs, and they go overboard in the other direction — “Nothing is true,” they say, “except what we tell you.”

As for myself, I certainly don’t need to hear any more excruciatingly intimate details of the President’s sex life or anatomy, whether real or made up, thank you.

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