Wag the Dog: The Cynical Movie Americans Deserve

New Line Cinema / Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Wag the Dog is notable, mostly, for its cynicism—cynicism that is so deep, and so pervasive, that it takes for granted that the cynicism will be shared by its audience. The film’s satire is so searing, in part, because it starts with the premise that politics is performance (or, ahem, that it is Political Theater, if you will)—and then it takes that premise to its logical conclusion. The argument undergirding the whole thing is that what Americans experience as the details of their civic life is actually an enormous production. All of it—the pageantry, the policy divisions, the things that suggest that Americans, by way of our hard-fought representative democracy, have an active say in our own future—is basically one elaborate Truman Show.

Wag the Dog, for my money, is very, very good satire. But what I kept thinking about after I watched it was why, in particular, its satire was so successful. And I think it had something to do with the fact that the film is based on a truth that is so widely distributed, I think, as to be largely invisible: that Americans, nowadays, take for granted the idea that politics is, in some sense, a lie.

It’s entirely fitting that Wag the Dog take for granted its audience’s cynicism; most Americans are, after all, extremely cynical about politics and elections. Not in a #rigged kind of way, necessarily, but in a softer, more diffuse, more miasmic way: Many of us just figure that political institutions are constantly trying to fool us. Campaigns are a Hollywood production, with wardrobe and makeup and cue cards. They involve lines and edits and revisions. They cast characters. They take direction. They take place, for the most part, on screens.

Many of the movies we’ve watched so far in Political Theater get at that basic idea through pushing against it: Head of State’s Mays Gilliam is a regular guy who refuses to play his advisers’ Hollywood-inspired game. So, to an extent, is The Candidate’s Bill McKay. And so, in a way, is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet, who thwarts expectations about presidential geniality by being that most time-honored of things: True to Himself.

It’s a common trope in films and shows about politics: the one person, standing up to the Hollywood-produced machinery of Washington. The individual, fighting for authenticity in a political culture that wants nothing more than to be fake. What Wag the Dog suggests, though, is something both gentler and infinitely more cynical: Here, there is no one to push back. Here, there is no one to stand up for authenticity or truth or the empowerment of the individual. Here, it’s all a production; we citizens double as audiences. And the thing of it is that, in the movie’s dark vision, there is no difference between the two.

If you have any thoughts about the film you’d like to add, please drop us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from a reader:

Glad you brought up this movie. It’s ahead of its time in underlining our tendency to believe what we see on TV, Facebook, Twitter, and from political “surrogates” and pundits. I have to confess: As a Class A cynic (hey, four years at a New England prep school in the ‘60s will do that to ya), I watch Wag the Dog about once a year just because it makes me laugh to see a team of “whatever it takes” political operatives go so all in on Robert deNiro’s command. Great supporting cast, too. Yikes.