This review is part of my Remake Preview series, where I watch the original version (or versions) of a movie that is set to be re-made in the near future.
Wag the Dog is a harshly cynical film, a film about a political fixer who comes in to cover up a crisis in which the President of the United States has been accused of sexual impropriety. It’s bizarre to watch a film with this basic premise given the events of the 2016 election, though its not hard to draw parallels between the situations. The film is at parts highly implausible, and yet as Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) and Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) produce a series of events to distract from the real narrative, we follow an utterly contrived story that feels, somehow, simultaneously surreal and improbable to real life, and yet convincing as a satire of real events that occur all the time.
Despite being a film that shows serious signs of its age, Wag the Dog feels incredibly relevant to our current political climate – in a sense, it’s the entire playbook for modern elections, distracting the electorate with a made-up crisis that diverts attention from another public relations issue. For instance, it’s impossible to imagine successfully producing a fake war, as is done in the film, without a word of truth escaping somehow, particularly with social media and the internet. On the other hand, war as a distraction from political conflict, taking advantage of American naivety? That’s all too familiar.
Wag the Dog is currently being adapted by HBO as a series, which is an interesting choice in the current political climate. While I trust HBO’s track record, particularly in the comedy space, I’m a little bit skeptical of a show like this succeeding. While I certainly would hope that this adaptation would be superior to HBO’s ill-fated 2015 show, The Brink, it certainly seems like a very similar premise on the surface. However, with the right talent attached, this could potentially be a good show when considered in isolation.
However, it’s impossible to watch a show like this in isolation. The fact of the matter is, context is important. As someone who follows pop culture trends, and what people are generally watching, I get the sense that there’s a diminished appetite for entertainment that touches on political realities that are uncomfortable in the Trump presidency. One sentiment I’ve seen reflected is that, in times like these, shows like The Americans and Veep are tough to watch, even for fans of those shows.
Additionally, and more importantly, there is nothing that a TV show can do that can top the Trump presidency. There is no satire or parody that is more effective than watching what happens in reality. Trump is so far beyond the pale of any standards or conception of “normalcy” that it’s nearly impossible to effectively parody the current political reality.
I’ll certainly be interested to see what this Wag the Dog remake looks like, and what steps are taken to veer into, or avoid, the current political reality,