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Wag the Dog is a 1997 political film, directed by Barry Levinson. The President of the United States is caught making sexual advances to an underage "Firefly Girl" (the fictional equivalent of a Girl Scout). His timing could not be worse, as there is a presidential election coming up. Presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) and professional spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) are tasked with taking the public attention away from the scandal.
Conrad decides to create a fictional war with Albania. He recruits Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to create the illusion of the ongoing war. Actors play war orphans, an army convict is cast as a war hero, etc. All broadcast by American networks as real news. They take advantage of the relative obscurity of Albania among the public to make up details as they go.
This film was actually not Ripped from the Headlines, because said headlines happened the next year.
This title is, of course, unrelated to Tropey the Wonder Dog.
- Acceptable Targets: In-universe, the Albanians are this.
Ames: Why Albania?
Brean: Why not?
Ames: What have they done to us?
Brean: What have they done for us? What do you know about them?
Brean: See? They keep to themselves. Shifty. Untrustable.
- The Barnum: Conrad has based his entire career on this trope (well... that, and killing people). Stanley and Winifred evolve into this type.
- Black Comedy
- Catch Phrase: "This is nothing!"
- "You don't change horses in midstream."
- Did Not Do the Research: Stanley Motss comments that "there is no Academy Award for producing." Who do you think accepts the Oscar for Best Picture?
- Probably not a case of this, since Barry Levinson was nominated for Best Picture before this movie came out. More likely, it's just Motss being egotistical.
- Dude, Not Funny In-Universe: No one is amused by Johnny Dean's musical riff on the President's sexual escapades.
- Everyone Knows Morse: "Old Shoe" ripped Morse code into his shirt.
- Indy Ploy: Sort of done by the spin man, as he has to gauge the media's reaction and then feed them.
- Invented Individual: To make the entirely fake war in Albania more "real" Hollywood director Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) creates the personality of a special operations soldier: "Old Shoe". A series of setbacks (including the fact that the person they used died before his staged return) forces them to explain his death. They even mount an elaborate viral memorial "meme" by throwing tennis shoes in trees.
- Invisible President: The film almost always has the main characters talking to "the president" on the phone. The one time the President is on camera, he is in shadows and seen from the back only. On the other hand, his opponent is frequently shown in TV ads and on talk shows.
- His name isn't said either- his campaign ads just have 'Re-elect the President' as a tag line.
- Karma Houdini: Brean and Ames. They both successfully pull off The Masquerade, which included a few deaths, some death threats and of course the manipulation of an entire nation, with no hint that they'll be caught.
- Also the president, who was able to divert attention away from his actions with the Firefly Girl.
- Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Chillingly portrayed: Motss refuses to keep quiet about the fake war, and in the next scene, he's reported as having died of a heart attack in his estate.
- Line-of-Sight Name: How Stanley comes up with "Old Shoe's" unit number: It's 3:03 PM, so Old Shoe was a proud member of the 303!
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Dustin Hoffman based Motss look and mannerisms on real-world producer Robert Evans. Evans is said to have joked on occasion that he was really good in that film.
- Post-Mortem Conversion: The propaganda spin-doctors turn a mentally ill rapist into a faked war hero. When they can't control him, they get him killed. This is a huge improvement for them, since his corpse is easy to control. Public burial of the "hero" ensues.
- POV Sequel: Producer Stanley Motss claims to have made an extremely successful film re-telling Moby Dick from the perspective of the white whale.
- Running Both Sides: Political advisers attempt to create an "artificial war" — and trick the public into thinking it's the real thing.
- Running Gag: Despite being knee-deep in a cover-up that has far wider implications, Winifred is more obsessed with ensuring there are no illegal immigrants involved.
- Scout Out: The scandal that prompts the plot to happen involves a "Firefly Girl" that the President is accused of fondling just fourteen days before election time.
- Smart People Play Chess: Subverted. After a particularly devious play in their campaign to create a fake war, the film producer remarks to the spin doctor, "I'll bet you're great at chess." The spin doctor replies, "I would be, if I could remember how all the pieces moved."
- Stylistic Suck: The President's awful, awful campaign ads.
- Also the atrocious song cooked up to boost patriotism during the fake war.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: Quickly pressed into vinyl and smuggled into the Library of Congress.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: Invoked. Brean tells one of the president's staff to make one of these to the press, saying that the reason the president is late returning home has absolutely nothing to do with the B-3 bomber or the situation in Albania. And right after that, that they misspoke and that there is no such plane and no situation. The results are predictable, and pretty soon everybody's attention is focused on finding out what's going on in Albania instead of on the girl.
- The Un-Reveal: We never get to know if the president did, in fact, have sex with the Firefly Girl.
- You sure you wanna know?
- There's another example: at the end of the film, there's a news flash telling us that an Albanian terrorist organisation has claimed responsibility for a recent bombing. We don't find out if it's real or fake, who's running things now that Motss is dead, or why, if it's real, they'd want the war to continue.
- Villain Protagonist: The main characters, and also, the President. Motss, Brean and Ames, no matter how loveable their characters come off, are still despicable people manipulating the American public to protect a President who was caught trying to make a pass at a young girl. The fact that several people end up dead as a result of their actions, and that they get away with it, only underlines the point.
- War for Fun and Profit: Toyed with. The President gets a sex scandal swept under the rug and even improves his approval rating, all because of a war. With the twist that there never actually is a war as far as the viewers know. There may be fighting going on off screen, or there may not at all. We don't know, because it doesn't matter and nobody cares. What's important are the photo ops, the slogans and the huge PR spin.
- What Could Have Been: The original novel, American Hero, involved George HW Bush starting the actual Gulf War, scripted by Hollywood screenwriters with Saddam Hussein agreeing to it in exchange for secret payments and the boost to his reputation for fighting America.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: Constantly. Almost every plan Stanley and Conrad come up with once the film gets going backfires hugely, leading to a frantic chain of improvisation.