In class today we watched a film, Wag the Dog, starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Heche. The film, released in 1998, is a satire on media manipulation by people in high places and, as satire, contains some amount of truth but exaggerates it to the point where it becomes incredible. Once we realise that we aren’t supposed to take the exaggerated form too seriously we have a decent enough comedy to enjoy.
The story centres around three individuals, Heche as Winifred Ames, a presidential aide who is trying to divert attention from a sexual indiscretion by the president in the run up to an election, De Niro as Conrad Brean, a spin doctor with expertise in such situations, and the movie producer Stanley Motss, played by Hoffman, engaged by Brean to produce the raw media material of deception.
Released around the same time as the scandal broke surrounding President Clinton having intimate contact with an intern at the White House, Monica Lewinsky, one has to ask if the film makers had prior knowledge of what was about to come into the public domain, as the shot of the fictitious young woman that was the subject of the President’s attention in the film, has her wearing an almost identical hat to that worn by Monica Lewinsky in the most familiar shot of her greeting President Clinton in public. Apart from the hat she the shot looks uncannily like the real Clinton/Lewinsky footage.
If we are to ask ourselves if the events portrayed in the film could take place in real life I think we would have to say that in order to make the film more entertaining the film makers stepped beyond what we might reasonably accept and into the territory of the ridiculous. It cannot be wholly dismissed that cynical individuals within a government would ‘manufacture’ a fictitious war to influence the public’s perception of a politician in the run up to an election, but the likelihood of them getting away with it is very small.
Perhaps more credible is the proposition that a real war might be waged based on falsified information and, indeed, it could be argued that is what happened in the case of the war in Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq was used as the prime reason for going to war. No such weapons have ever been found and it is questionable whether they ever existed at all. Much of the blame has been put on ‘failures in intelligence’, but there is serious suspicion that at the highest levels of both the British and United States governments there was at best a willingness to be misled and at worst a deliberate deception carried out.
The real life case of Private Jessica Lynch, captured by Iraqi soldiers in March 2003, and later rescued by U.S. special forces has some similarities to the media manipulation by the military of the narrative of missing soldier ‘Old Shoe’ in Wag the Dog. Lynch later testified that the portrayal of her seemingly heroic actions were concocted and we can see here that the adage that ‘in war the first casualty is the truth’ really does apply.
So, to conclude, being students of media we can see that much of the technical detail of the construction of the fake film footage in Wag the Dog is exaggerated. The story itself is also a satirical exaggeration of what might happen as some at the highest levels in power seek to influence what we think and how we might vote. However, in some ways reality is even stranger and the consequences far more serious and bloody than the events portrayed in Wag the Dog. Many thousands died in the Iraq War, mostly Iraqis but also many American soldiers. I think a lot of people are fairly cynical about the way the media can be manipulated to justify actions that would be otherwise difficult to justify, but we then have to ask ourselves does our cynicism really matter. In the end are we happy, to some extent, to acquiesce in the deception and feel comfort in our sense of moral superiority, so long as its consequences don’t directly affect us?