The Third Act of Wag the Dog

Wag the DogThe reason I was so late getting the birthday post done today was that I decided to watch Wag the Dog. I’ve been aware of the film since it came out. How can anyone interested in politics and film not be? But I never saw it, probably because I figured that it wasn’t that good. The idea behind it is just too good: political operatives stage a war to distract from a sex scandal. But it is exactly this kind of idea that Hollywood tends to destroy. And the fact that David Mamet wrote it didn’t thrill me. Although I think he is a fine writer, he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. Then again, it was directed by Barry Levinson, who is a good comedic director. Whatever, I hadn’t seen it until tonight.

I enjoyed the first two acts. It is very funny, but only because it is so outrageous. And it really isn’t about Washington at all. It is about Hollywood. And in particular, it is an hour and a half of making fun of the power elite in Hollywood and their narcissism. At the same time, all the characters have less depth than a situation comedy teenager. Dustin Hoffman as the Hollywood producer Stanley Motss is all narcissism and literally nothing else. Robert De Niro as the political operative Conrad Brean is all business all the time. I guess we are supposed to think he is mysterious, but really he’s just empty.

The funny thing about this is that the script was originally written by Hilary Henkin, sort of your typical Hollywood screenwriting hack (that is not an insult—she makes terrible films less terrible). When Barry Levinson came in to direct the film, he asked his old pal Mamet to rewrite the script. After the film was completed, Levinson asked the production company to give sole credit for the screenplay to Mamet. Understandably, Henkin didn’t like that, so she filed a complain with the Writers Guild of America (WGA). Not only did they say credit had to be shared, they said that Henkin had to get top billing. As is always the case with the WGA, they focused on which writer nailed down the structure. Levinson, acting like he knew nothing about screenwriting, complained that the only reason that Mamet’s final screenplay was close to Henkin’s was that they were both based upon the same book.

But he also bemoaned the fact that Mamet had created the two main characters: Motss and Brean. Oh, what an accomplishment! Mamet reached into the Hollywood zeitgeist and pulled out two cliches! I can just imagine how it looks in the script:

CONRAD BREAN walks into the frame. He is a man who wears a business suit. He has a beard. Sometimes he wears a coat when it is cold outside. Also a hat.

What’s especially funny about this is that the filmmakers are making fun of Hollywood and its insular and narcissistic ways, and here is Levinson acting it out in real life.

All of this would have been fine. As I said, the first two acts work. What doesn’t work is the terrible third act. Motss storms out because he wants to tell the world of the great thing that he’s done. So Brean has him killed. There is absolutely no motivation for any of this. It’s true that Motss makes noises throughout the film that he wants to expose what he’s done. But even he must know that were he to do that, it would ruin the art that he had created.

I have what I think it a much better third act. They are so successful at selling this fake war that it gets out of hand that the president actually has to go to war. At this point, Motss freaks out. He’s fine with creating an illusion for the people, but he doesn’t want to be culpable for an actual war. So he goes to a reporter but it is someone who is connected with Brean. Then Motss is killed just like in the actual film.

But I figure they didn’t think they needed for Motss to have any reason for getting killed other than his one defining character trait: narcissism. And Brean didn’t need to have any problems killing him because he’s just an automaton in a business suit (with a beard and a coat when it is cold). As for the politics, all it has to say is that the president is sold like a product. Well, maybe they should have given screenwriting credit to Joe McGinniss, because he wrote that back in 1969.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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