TWO STARS - Shallow
Is the President of the United States the moral leader of America? Or, is the President only an illusion shaped by the media?
Most of us have an opinion about who or what the President stands for, or what he represents to us. Some of us defend our Chief of State regardless of his flaws. Others will vilify him regardless of his strengths.
More than likely, we will project onto him values and qualities far beyond the reality of who he really is.
But what if the President is engaged in activities that most of us would find distasteful? Could the media be used to cover up a multitude of sins and stir us to cheer him on regardless of his behavior?
“Wag the Dog” would certainly lead us to believe that the media, television in particular, could get the American public to believe in anything. Told with exaggerated humor, this comical look at spin doctors run amok is a funny tale about protecting the President’s image at all costs.
When the President is accused of fondling a young girl eleven days before the next election, he calls in his chief media guru Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro). Brean immediately launches a media war with the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman).
In this case, the media war is about a real war. Or is it? Brean and Motss use a series of sophisticated and totally fabricated videos to win the hearts and minds of the American public in sympathy toward the President who is standing up against aggression in Albania.
For producer Motss, this is his next big disaster film. The techniques he uses milk the emotions of the public, and before long they are singing patriotic songs and calling for sympathy for the Albanian freedom fighters.
In one unbelievable example of media manipulation, Motss films a young actress running across a stage holding a bag of potato chips. Then, using digital technology, he transforms the bag of chips into a cat, drops in a background of an Albanian town, adds a soundtrack of screams and gunfire and, like magic, we have a remarkable CNN clip of a suffering woman escaping with her life!
The most remarkable part of this fabricated media event is that it all takes place and is produced within 48 hours, complete with a “We Are The World” soundtrack done in Nashville in order to give the country a new song to sing while they cheer on their heroic President.
To say the least, Albania must be totally surprised, since no war really exists. But, the American public doesn’t care - they’ve seen it on television and that makes it real! Two days earlier, the President stood accused of sexual misconduct, and two days later the story is buried on page 12 as the war in Albania takes over the front page.
Certainly this must be an exaggeration.
But, one wonders if any of our own heroic events, such as our freeing Grenada from oppression in the 1980’s, could have been media diversions to distract our attention from other activities that were too hot to handle.
The underlying question of what we want the President to represent in our country is never answered in this film, but it certainly comes to mind.
Our founding fathers may have expected that our country’s leader would be an administrator of the public welfare for a period of four years. But by the 1990’s, we give the President an unprecedented role of moral leader of our nation, representing a fictionalized ideal created by an earlier Hollywood of Mr. Smith going off to Washington.
If this film were only partially true, then anything we see or read about the President would be a fabrication, an illusion. The haunting reality about “Wag the Dog” is that most of us believe that it might be true to one extent or another.
The more important issue is whether we have a larger-than-life expectation about our public leaders. Most Americans would not be satisfied with a leader who is not a media personality with star qualities.
If we want our democracy to survive into the 21st century, then we are going to have to give up our larger-than-life expectations of elected officials, and set our sights on people who carry other values, such as integrity, honesty, and service.