Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog”

The main idea of Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” is how easily the public opinion can be changed after some manipulations that were initially constructed as a myth. It functions as the Tomas theorem: if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. The reality does not refer to accurate facts, but it specidies those things that we call real as well. In other words, the interpretation of reality outgoes and constructs the reality itself. It reminds well-known example of Rene Magritte’s painting “This is Not a Pipe”. Indeed, this is not a pipe itself, but an image of a pipe. However, there is also an ethical problem because the manipulative strategies absolutely ignore all moral principles, especially the question of human truth.


How is the Public Relations Practitioner (Robert De Niro) Unethical?

He is a quite ironic and even sarcastic character with a profound imagination. In the first episode, the assistants and practitioner Conrad Brean discuss the sex scandal in the White House. One of the assistants asks whether he is interested in truth or not, and Conrad is indifferent to it. He asserts that the scandal will make noise in any case and nobody cares about the truth. It is more important that this fact will be published in the morning press, so all the people would know about the sex scandal and may not even ask questions to find out the truth. This is exactly how the Thomas theorem works in practice, but it is more interesting to examine Conrad’s ethical position.

On the one hand, Brean’s actions are not undeniably unethical because he tries to align the current situation that was immoral beforehand. Thus, Conrad Brean just does his work in the best possible way, quietly ignoring social ethical norms. On the other hand, the practitioner behaves as a last cynic in the world, which makes the producer (Dustin Hoffman) a perfect partner for him. In the scene when Conrad comes to the producer’s residence that looks like the White House, which is a brilliant metaphor of human financial pragmatism, where money decides everything, he says that war is nothing more than show business. Furthermore, Conrad decides to create a real show with the help of producer. He chooses Albania as a fictitious enemy in this simulated war. When his assistant asks him why he selected Albania, he just says: “Why not?”

Indeed, the war with Albania is an example of Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra that refers to the absence of meaning. What can really cause outrage is Conrad’s behavior in this situation. He looks illiterate and arrogant towards other cultures, even to unknown Albania. Conrad continues to divert attention from the scandal and imagines how poor Albanian girl will meet the President in her village. Talking about the virtual Albanian holiday, he absolutely ignores any sacred laws, manipulating the old mother with rituals and jealousy. Moreover, the President of the United States of America hears it and supports Conrad’s ironic tone.

One more perfect example of his unethical behavior is how Conrad lies to every person he meets. From the very beginning, Conrad says that he does not believe in truth since it does not have any sense in the modern word. Truth is only an interpretation of events, but not an objective thing at all. In this manner, he decides to falsify the war and then to save the situation when the conflict suddenly ceases. There is also such an ambiguous episode in the studio where “The Good Old Shoe” is recorded, the song that is associated with the abandoned war hero. When the song is adapted to the retro release, Brean proposes to invite the President to the studio using all possible methods, in particular recalling the sex scandal. Then he says that his actions are very amoral and basely, but they must be done. Besides, everyone has to be a little more patient because everything will end soon. Thus, Conrad Brean perfectly distends the absurd and his role in this show as well. However, it is doubtful whether it relieves him from responsibility. Can we utilize cultural, ethical and human values as the recourses for show manipulations? It seems that Conrad regrets about this story when the US Secret Service takes away the producer, but in fact he has always known that someone should be chosen a victim. The producer is a required pawn for salvation of a king.

The film reflects the logic of the phrase “Wag the Dog”. The main point of this phrase is to divert attention from more important issues in order to focus on less important things. It is also described in Brean’s motto: “To change the story, change the lead.” This motto, which is relevant to the situation, is presented in the movie. The war with Albania is an artificial minor fact that becomes more important than the real sex scandal. People start to divert their attention and are concerned with a new burning issue as long as possible, more precisely eleven days. Do Mr. Fix and his team cope with this task? Partly yes, because the President wins the election and the previous stories are successfully forgotten. The process of manipulation, on the other hand, has been not so easy, because every time the situation is going out of control. Thus, the dog becomes smarter than his tail and starts to control the situation. Perhaps, the dog symbolizes public opinion and the tail can be interpreted as media. In fact, the dog embodies people who are not smarter than the tail. In the movie, it is reflected in the one of the funniest scenes, where producer creates a shot of the Albanian refugee. All these replicas about cats, village and the whole situation make the audience realize a very simple fact: people are willing to believe in anything, even in the war with unknown country. Moreover, this is a common thing in history. Conrad tells his assistant about the War in the Gulf that was also simulated with the use of little cardboard houses. It means every historical fact is told as a story and can be easily retold in the weirdest way (for example, the imitated blues song “The Good Old Shoe” was placed in the national archive as an authentic release).

The question of the reality was raised in the film. How much are we really the dupes of complex media assaults and public relations campaigns as portrayed exaggeratedly in “Wag the Dog”? Using the Thomas theorem and Jean Baudrillard’s theory, it must be concluded that reality is nothing more than construction. The Albanian war was filmed on the studio with simple stage property and computer effects. Then all known and unknown historical facts might be simulated in the same way. Actually, this is a very serious suggestion that has both pros and cons. Accepting the fact of illusion, the whole world can be interpreted as a version of scenario, so there is no chance for building some objective forms of human existence. Moreover, it happens because of media and its manipulative methods that finally erode the reality itself.

This idea is not entirely correct because there are more influential methods of verification of the facts. In the movie it has been shown when the FBI agent comes to Conrad and his assistant. He says that the Albanian war is a pure non-sense because their spy satellites have not detected any alien objects. Brean answers in the following manner: “Of course there is a war. It’s on television. What good are the spy satellites if they show no war?” It sounds unconvincing and Mr. Fix knows it very well. The television is only a version of reality, even a very believable version, but not the reality at all. There is always a common sense that will help to identify the reality despite any manipulative strategies.

The propaganda devices are also used in the movie. The bandwagon effect is a very popular method of combining some general phrases that create confidence that “all do so”.

  • For example, the atomic bomb in Albania produces the effect of a well-known fact. This method makes the person feel that the majority to which he belongs identify general ideas, values and signs in the same way. Thus, the American government and the President must neutralize the global dangers in any possible way in order to conform to public goals.
  • The most striking propaganda method is the card stacking. It contains one-sided, tendentious presentation of reality that reveals only positive or negative facts about some person, phenomenon and event. The other facts are silenced as well. In the movie, both sides of this propaganda are perfectly used by the example of sex scandal. Firstly, the scandal itself is a pure negative fact that highlights one-sided version of the event. The public does not actually know what really has happened, but it has a strong effect due to the media anyway. Secondly, Conrad Brean and his team try to mitigate this scandal, creating a story about the President as a savior of the up-coming nuclear war. It is also illustrated in the episode when he meets the Albanian refugee and her old mother. This is completely opposite situation, when a poor hero becomes a good one.
  • The third method is a name calling. This is a very popular method in politics, television and everyday life. It consists in choosing abusive metaphors for names of specific individuals, groups of people or events. Since the President with high rating is a target for sex provocation, various provocative clich?s are used. The glittering generality is quite opposite to the previous propaganda. This technique exploits the positive emotions of people in relation to such words as “peace”, “freedom”, “patriotism”, etc. The situation with war hero perfectly illustrates this technique. The producer creates a story of how a brave American service man is left behind: “We forgot a hero. You can’t have a war without a hero.” William Schumann is supposed to be a real hero and a good son because he has Morse code message on his shirt: “Courage Mom!” However, it is completely artificially created character through the use of positive manipulative markers.
  • Finally, the most important propaganda is a transfer that wholly mirrors the general idea of “Wag the Dog”. This technique lies in initiated associative connections, which are directed towards anything that has value and significance. For example, it can be the President’s photo on the background of the country’s flag proudly fluttering against the blue sky. There are many brilliant examples of transfer method in the film. One of them is the President’s speech about a brave American hero, who is associated with the moral and social ideals of the United States of America. Thus, the movie is an explication of transfer from the first episode to the last scene, where the American hero has been buried with all the honors.

The film by Barry Levinson illustrates how easily the reality can be transformed and how far people can go in their beliefs. The manipulative methods change the situation in that way when the tail becomes smarter than the dog, although we think the other way round.

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