11 days before the election the president is suddenly facing a sex scandal after disappearing into his office with a teenage girl. He is leading in the polls but something has to be done, so a task force is set up, led by Robert de Niro, and it is decided the thing to do to get the sex scandal out of the headlines is go to war. To manage and produce this media event the services of Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman are employed:
Out of the blue, a conflict with Albania is created, the spectre of international Nuclear Terrorism is raised. Albanian terrorists are supposed to be near the Canadian border on their way to blow up the land of the free with a “Suitcase Bomb”. News footage from the war in Albania is created entirely in the studio. A patriotic hysteria is easily created in the face of such serious threat, until the CIA puts a stop to the baloney and for a few hours a kind of normalcy returns.
The production team of this war is deeply unhappy about this turn of events though and are preparing for phase two: They invent Special Forces unit 303, some of whom got stuck behind enemy lines, a soldier named Schuhmacher is chosen to be the American war hero for that purpose, nicknamed “Old Shoe”. Again a whole line of merchandising is created, the t-shirts, the burgers, the song. This time the song is made to sound old, a hiss is added, the thing is pressed on a 78rpm record and placed in the Library of Congress to be found later at the right opportunity. Mr.Schuhmacher turns out to be a psycho rapist on large doses of medication, and instead of landing to receive patriotic honours he makes the plane crash in the middle of nowhere and gets himself killed by some country folk. De Niro and Hoffman are rather relieved by this, now they can dutifully bury the national hero.
It is here that Hoffman wants the credits for what he sees as his finest production, but since the American people is not supposed to know, he is taken away by the men with black shades and in the final scene of the film a news speaker announces his unexpected death from a heart attack.
Wag the Dog is not a brilliant movie but it is remarkable in that it exposes the machinations of manipulation and production of reality, the total disregard for truth in favour of power in contemporary political culture. That’s remarkable for an American mainstream movie as such, but also marks an unstable situation of permanent information war spilling over into mainstream culture.
This may lead to a wounded reality:
“Virilio: And to those, like my friend Baudrillard, who say that this war did not actually occur, I reply: this war may not have occurred in the actual global space, but it did occur in global time. And this thanks to CNN and The Pentagon. This is a new form of war, and all future wars, all future accidents will be live wars and live accidents.
CTHEORY: How will this removal affect people?
Virilio: Firstly, a de-realization, the accident of the real. It’s not one,
two, hundreds or thousands of people who are being killed, but the whole reality itself. In a way, everybody is wounded from the wound of the real. This phenomenon is similar to madness. The mad person is wounded by his or her distorted relationship to the real. Imagine that all of a sudden I am convinced that I am Napoleon: I am no longer Virilio, but Napoleon. My reality is wounded. Virtual reality leads to a similar de-realization. However, it no longer works only at the scale of individuals, as in madness, but at the scale of the world.”
(Cyberwar, God and Television, ctheory.com)
Of course this refers to the Gulf War, of which the “Albanian War” is a kind of reverse. The death of those who want to – for whatever reason – spill the beans remains real though. Of course Wag the Dog doesn’t delve into postmodern confusion here, it uses comedy as a way out. That’s fair enough, since the message that those in power are keen to manufacture the reality that keeps them there is conveyed.