Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Wag the Dog: Personal Analysis through Visual Literacy Lens

Wag the Dog (1997) is a comedic drama about spin, similar to Thank You for Smoking (a movie I blogged about earlier this month). In Wag the Dog, the opening scene is a secret meeting of the President's advisors, who know that news of the President fondling a young girl is going to hit the presses the next day. The advisors need to lessen the blow of the news because the President is up for re-election in three weeks. Invited to the meeting is Conrad Brean, a well-known spin doctor who suggests that they use the media to create the illusion of a war to show the President's usefulness and distract the public from the President's scandal. Brean enlists the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motts, and they set to work creating the illusion of a war in Albania through fake scenes of a girl running through rubble with her cat, a rallying war song, and the death and proper burial of a "war hero." At one point the CIA even detains Brean and his advising partner (Winifred Ames) for their antics, but Brean suggests that the CIA doesn't actually know what's going on in the world and they are released. In the end, the President is re-elected, but the press insinuates his win was due to his campaign slogan and not his recent efforts with the war, which infuriates Motts. Motts says that he is going to call the media and tell them what really happened and why the President won the election, and after Brean unsuccessfully attempts to dissuade him, Brean tells a secret service agent to take care of Motts. The next morning there is a news story about Motts being found dead in his Hollywood home from a "heart attack," but we are meant to believe that the secret service agents killed Motts so he wouldn't release their secret war to the press. At the very end of the movie we see a news report about violence in Albania, leaving us to wonder if it was a real or fabricated report.

View the trailer for Wag the Dog below:



What do you feel is the message the director is trying to express in this movie? Support your answer with examples.
I think the message of this movie is that unless we witness something ourselves, we can never be sure of the full truth. (And even if we do witness something, sometimes we still cannot be sure that the occasion was not a set-up.) Trust goes a long way, and in general, trust is earned. For example, I am more inclined to believe a story that my best friend tells me as opposed to if a new acquaintance just shared the same story because I have known my friend for a longer period of time and have heard stories from her that were later verified. In this movie, the situation is heightened because the government is the body sharing the story. As the citizens of the United States, we put our trust in the government as our administrative, commanding body; the government cannot properly rule without the trust of its people. In this movie, that trust is exploited for the gains of the President. Of course the American people are convinced that a war is occurring in Albania; why wouldn't they? The TV showed clips of "destruction in Albania" and "war heroes" that were believable to the people, even though they were completely fictional. The President and his team used that blind trust of the nation to win re-election. So I think the purpose of this movie was to not only show that we can never be sure of the full truth, we should also be skeptical of bodies (such as the government) that have an incredible amount of clout and influence and would have the power to sway our opinions.

Discuss if you think this movie has accurate depictions of minorities or if they are situational. 
This movie included very few minority groups, and they did not appear to be purposefully cast for their minority status. The only possible minority issue I detect in this film is the role of women. Winifred Ames, the advisor working alongside Conrad Brean to pull off the fake Albanian war, is a blonde who is frequently ignored. (Perhaps she is being painted as a "dumb blonde.") There is also a scene in the movie in which Motts writes a speech for the American public that the President doesn't want to give because he thinks it is corny; to prove its ability to impact the people, Motts collects female secretaries and delivers the speech to them, resulting in a room full of bawling women. This perpetuates the openly emotional woman stereotype. Besides these examples, I don't think this movie was intended to depict minorities in any certain way.

Explain if you think the director’s ethnic/cultural/professional background played a role in directing this film.
The director, Barry Levinson, is a Caucasian male born in the 1940s. I could not find any conclusive articles that stated he was skeptical of the government, he was raised in a household that encouraged him to be critical of the government, or any such quotes from the director himself. However, it is possible that Levinson wanted to bring light to the role media plays in manipulating our minds due to some experience he had in his past.

An interesting addition to this topic is that soon after the movie was released, the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton sex scandal was publicized and the President bombed Afghanistan and Sudan in response to the Kenya-Tanzania bombings of American embassies. People drew parallels between Wag the Dog, in which the President covered his sex scandal with a fake war, and real life, in which the President may have tried to divert attention from his sex scandal with bombings. (I was alerted of this comparison in this article from the Los Angeles Times.) I doubt that Levinson knew anything about Lewinsky and Clinton's affair, but it is incredibly coincidental that what happened in history seemed so similar to the film. Did Levinson detect that the government was hiding something?

Image used with permission from David Shankbone on WikiMedia Commons

What groups (people of color, nationality, culture, class, gender etc.) may be offended or misinterpret this movie and why?
As mentioned previously, women (and particularly secretaries) may be offended by the movie due to the way their identities were portrayed in the film. However, I think all American people may be impacted and possibly angered by this movie. The movie depicts a small group of wealthy, well-connected people brainwashing the public through the government's influence. This insinuates that the American people are gullible and will believe anything their government tells them without questioning it (even when the CIA tries to release the truth). It may lead people to wonder if they are indeed that easily influenced.

What has the movie added to your visual literacy?
This movie has reiterated the importance of thinking beyond what is actually portrayed, not only through visuals but in all aspects of life. For example, in one of my other classes we have mentioned poor research ethics in medicine, from issues such as not reporting some clinical trials to make a product seem to work better than it does to medical companies funding their own studies and not obtaining an unbiased review. These sorts of problems lead people to believe that their medicines and medical devices are actually more effective than they are, putting people's lives at risk. On a less serious note, we are tricked all the time into thinking a certain way. For example, check out this Ikea lamp commercial:


The commercial uses effects that we usually associate with sadness (the rain, slow music, darkness, the lamp that is alone on the street) to make us feel sad for the lamp; we are only snapped out of it when the narrator reminds us that "it has no feelings" and that we are "crazy" for feeling sad for it.

Director Barry Levinson did quip that this is not always intentional. Because of the instantaneous nature of media, reports may be disseminated that are unknowingly incorrect. While this was not the premise of the movie (because reports were being released that were intentionally fictitious), it should be known that this problem exists innocently as well. People are made to believe something that they don't realize is incorrect until later on. (See him talk about it in the interview below.)


The movie adds to this discussion. We believe the news (whether they be broadcasts, print media, websites, etc.) because those are the outlets we expect to receive reliable information from. But, though we may question advertisements (because we know that their purpose is to sway us into thinking a certain way), we rarely question other sources that we have deemed factual and credible, such as research, news, and even the government. We need to be more critical of the media that is given to us. What is the message that the author is trying to portray? WHY is the author trying to transmit this message? Is the purpose to transmit factual information or persuade us? Is this a credible source? Are there any parts of the message that are hard to believe? Overall, we need to look at our world with a critical eye and think more deeply about (and question) the information we are being fed on a daily basis.

What kind of artistic and/or visual means did the director use in the movie to focus our attention?
The parts that stand out the most to me from this film were the very beginning and the very end. I rewound the movie and paused it a couple of times to write down the opening remarks written on the screen, "Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog." I think this quote could have two different meanings. First, the dog might represent the American people and the tail might represent the media. As we have explored throughout this class, the media influences the public, though the people should be greater than the media. The other meaning that I see in the quote would be if the dog represented the American people and the tail represented the government. The government is supposed to exist for the benefit of the people, but as Wag the Dog shows, perhaps the government exists because it is influencing the people to believe that we need it. This quote was given at the beginning of the movie to set the tone of the film; it's satirical and shocking. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking about that quote and how it related to the atrocities I was viewing.

The end of the movie also stood out to me because it left me thinking even after the movie was over. At the end, we are shown news stories of the war in Albania; however, it is left uncertain whether the war is real or continued fabrication from the President's story. (Even the empty room shown after the clip is troubling; is the room empty because the advisors are busy making up the news, or is the room empty because they no longer are making it up and have duties elsewhere?) The uncertainty focuses our attention back to the message of this movie; we can't necessarily believe what we see at face value.

Image used with permission from Counselling on GoodFreePhotos

Additional comments/and or analysis/and or other movies recommendations.

Overall, as I was watching this film I was torn between laughing at the hilarity of a couple of people trying to create the illusion of a war and crying because they were successful at convincing the American public that it was true. I try to be skeptical and reflective on the things I see, hear, read, etc., but I wonder how truly successful I am. I wonder how much paranoia has been caused by this film and others like it (such as Thank You for Smoking). And was the purpose of this film to make me feel paranoid?

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