An essay on Wag the Dog

How does Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog exemplify key ideas of Jean Baudrillard, especially as articulated within The Evil Demon of Images, America, and The Gulf War Did Not Take Place ?

The themes and plot to Wag the Dog, in all of their biting satire and perceived cynicism, are at heart a true exemplification of the ideas procured from Jean Baudrillard's three aforementioned works. It is his views on the simulacrum, the image's relationship with reality and the media's use of that connection, or even amalgamation, which are at the core of the film. Hilary Henkin and David Mamet's sharp and humorous script provides a very literal demonstration on the power and the manipulation of images. The film also illustrates Baudrillard's key concepts by actually becoming a part of the simulacrum equation. It is meant to be a work of entertainment, but it may also be seen as looking so real that one has difficulty in distinguishing between the reality and the fabricated. Maybe this aspect of the film is the most Baudrillardian of all.

The film deals with how ruthless advisers and producers deal with a White House crisis. Two weeks before election day, the president is caught in an embarrassing sexual escapade. His aide, with the help of an old political trickster, decides that the best way to get the president of the hook, is a quick war against a small opponent no one cares about. The goal is therefore to convince the public of such an event, and who better to create such a spectacle, than the most "Hollywood" of producers. They all come up with a barrage of images, songs, and devices to lure America away from the truth into a kaleidoscopic vision of war, which in reality is just a special effect. Reality in essence becomes a special effect of the simulacrum that they have created.

Look at this, it's a complete fucking fraud, and it looks 100% real.

This is said by Stanley Motss, the slimy producer. They create an extravagant showpiece -- the young girl running away from her ruined village with her little cat is in fact just an actress holding a packet of Doritos running in front of a blue-screen. But that doesn't matter, because it looks real, and that is all that the creators of this odyssey need.

Note the TV Gulf War, which we all witnessed on CNN. It was the perfect Baudrillardian scenario. This hyperreal situation created fascination, horror, and patriotism. We digested the unfolding images with a "sense of unreality as we recognised the elements of a Hollywood script which had preceded the real." Hollywood churns out big budget special effects action films about war and combat. Consequently, the images we see on news broadcasts about wars and other events happening around the world are not anything new. They are watched with a sense of deja vu, as we feel we have seen it before. In a sense, both types of image become indistinguishable, as they both try to involve us emotionally, and feed our ferocious desire to see the action -- "live!" or scripted, it doesn't really matter.

The American people, (whether they be those in the contemporary 1990s, or those portrayed in the fictional film) feed on the images with a gluttonous hunger, and trust the image without hesitation. Obviously, the film is a parody, but it is purposely far-fetched to illustrate this very real occurrence. After witnessing the Gulf War, and in recent times, the numerous occasions of media hype and speculation on any number of events and topics, one cannot look at this film and dismiss it as mere fantasy. The mere fantasy provides the actual reality, as images appropriate reality so closely that nobody can distinguish between the two any longer. The Gulf War was not the harsh reality of combat or loss of lives, as traditional wars are remembered. It was broadcasted as

[T]he CNN journalists with their gas masks in the Jerusalem studios; the drugged and beaten prisoners repenting on the screen of Iraqi TV; and perhaps that sea-bird covered in oil and pointing its blind eyes towards the Gulf sky.

Therefore, in that context, and within the film itself, images are used and manipulated to become simulacra: the war created by Stanley Motss, although fabricated, looked and sounded real, and technology permitting, would have smelt, tasted, and felt real too. That is all that seems to count in our world today, as the Gulf War looked and sounded real to all of us in front of our television screens. There was no question that it was real.

[T]he image is interesting not only in its role as reflection, mirror, representation of the real, but also when it begins to contaminate reality and to model it when it appropriates reality for its own ends.

So, as the images in the film appear most truthful, and most in conformity with reality, are they diabolical? According to Baudrillard they are, as images become so close to simulating reality that they usurp it, and impose their own set of perverse rules. This set of rules is evil and diabolical because they have no depth or purpose -- they are simply simulations which fascinate and beguile (seduce).

By looking at Wag the Dog, one can see how it exemplifies such a concept. Images appropriate reality so closely that they are indistinguishable from each other. Images are created such as a little girl and her cat in war-torn Albania, and subsequently a suffering American soldier left behind by his troops, with only one secret encoded message -- to his dear old mother. These images set their own rules and logic. They are being seen by the masses, not the actual nothingness that truly exists beyond their borders, nor the hurried work going on in some Hollywood studio to create the farce to begin with. The people digest them with ease, and call out for freedom and justice, while singing along to the joyous song (also created by Motss). The people (inevitably, those people are us) are seduced by images which build on themselves to evolve into a national cry to bring the "old shoe" back home.

Wag the Dog exemplifies Baudrillard perfectly by simply demonstrating how mesmerising and seductive the image is. The images we see in the cinema, on CNN, and in our daily lives are reality in as much as they are what people sense, interpret, and trust. Robert De Niro's character, Conrad Brean sighs and says "the war is over, I saw it on TV" as the plot makes a turn for the worse. He says it because if the television has told America that the crisis is over, then nobody stands a chance in arguing that the war is not over. War is very much a product of cinematography and life is just a reel of film.

As simulacra, images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction.

Wag the Dog is also remarkably in tune with Baudrillard on a another level, as the film became remarkably prophetic in its story. It created a reality on celluloid and in Hollywood -- a scenario that subsequently unfolded in a very similar fashion in the "real world" of America. It was alleged that the President was sexually involved with numerous women in the past. A controversy broke out, and the media pounced on the story in a frenzy. Suddenly that news story became subordinate to the sudden threat of military action in the Gulf. Once again, the images from CNN and the BBC, including words and speeches of patriotism, and more depictions of 'moustache-twirling' villains deluged us all. Yes, this can be attributed to mere coincidence, but the point to be made is that while watching this unfold, and while watching the film, it is almost uncanny how both sets of images melded in such a phantasmagorical way. The images are evil because who knows which one appropriated which.

"War is showbuisness" , Stanley Motss says. Indeed -- war and our daily lives have become a show, a continuous flicker of simulacra that fade into a televisual or cinematographic consciousness. We watch CNN like zombies, just as the American people watch the war with Albania with hope and pride. The extravaganza is not detected to be fraudulent by the masses. Why should they be suspicious? They have seen it all before, and to them, it is as real and true as anything could be.

Information has a profound function of deception. It matters little what it "informs" us about, its "coverage" of events matters little since it is precisely no more than a cover: its purpose is to produce consensus by flat encephalogram.

Which is precisely what Wag the Dog illustrates. Stanley Motss knew it, as did Conrad Brean: just give the public the cover, so they feel they know what is happening outside their own small lives. And make it glossy and interesting -- that will keep them all interested and ultimately satisfied.


1 As quoted from Wag the Dog, written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, directed by Barry Levinson. 2 Introduction by Paul Patton, in Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton, Power Publications, Sydney, 1995, 2. 3 Baudrillard says war is purely televisual and cinematographic, just as daily life is. Using Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and the Vietnam War as examples of how war is "a technological and psychedelic fantasy a succession of special effects" in Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, trans. Paul Patton and Paul Foss, Power Publications, Sydney, 198, 17. 4 Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, 40. 5 Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, 16. 6 Referring to the soldier who was left in Albania, a name conjured up to give him an identity, and most importantly, a family waiting for the old shoe who is forgotten to return. All of this to make the campaign of tieing old shoes around trees, and crowds rallying for his return all the more easy to pull off. 7 Henkin & Mamet, Wag the Dog. 8 Baudrillard explains the way Americans lead their lives, like films. He calls it "the 'action' of life (action in the film-making sense, as what happens when the cameras begin to roll) their cinematography" in Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner, Verso, London, 1988, 85. 9 Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, 13. 10 Where a rapidly changing series of images, sounds, events, and people blend into one another, while we switch the channels at a fast pace, while we watch the film, deluged by the same thing, a hyperreality of sorts. All are truly indistinguishable: what is the real, what is the reproduction? 11 Henkin & Mamet, Wag the Dog. 12 Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, 68.

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