A few news commentators have referenced the movie Wag the Dog since Trump’s decision to bomb Syria. The movie was adapted from the novel American Hero written by Larry Beinhart. David Mamet and Hilary Henkin wrote the screenplay. The premise of the movie produced and directed by Barry Levinson is that a “spin-doctor” and a Hollywood producer team up to distract the electorate from a scandal that the President of the United States finds himself in. Hopefully the bombing of Syria is not a case of life imitating art. That being said, the 2016 presidential election has resulted in more and more frequent evocations of the following movies in political conversations. Spoiler alert. Synopses give away the movie endings.
Wag the Dog (1997)
The President of the United States gets caught making advances toward an underage girl less than two weeks before Election Day. Conrad Brean, a “spin doctor”, is hired to take the public’s attention away from the scandal. He decides to create a war with Albania to distract the media. Brean partners with Hollywood producer Stanley Motss to publicize the fake war. The hoax includes fake film footage set in Albania.
The CIA learns of the plot and sends Agent Young to confront Brean. Brean convinces the agent that revealing the hoax is not in his best interests. Eventually the media’s attention is turned back to the President’s scandal. Motss then decides to invent a “war hero”. He constructs a fake story that prompts the production of T-shirts, patriotic songs, and fake grassroots demonstrations of patriotism. Motss continues to dismiss setbacks no matter how momentous they become.
Eventually a political talk show frustrates Motss because the media credits the president’s win to a campaign slogan instead of his work. Motss decides he wants credit and refuses to back down. Brean has him killed. The president wins re-elections. Later a news report about a violent incident in Albania is shown. It is undetermined whether the incident is real or just a continuation of the war produced by Brean and Motss.
Man of the Year (2006)
Barry Levinson wrote and directed Man of the Year. In the movie Tom Dobbs, played by comedian Robin Williams, is the satirical host of a political talk show. He enjoys making fun of American politics. With some prompting from his audience, he decides to shake up politics as usual by running for president. He ends up on the ballot in 13 states. He participates in a national debate, ignoring all of the traditional conventions.
Eleanor Green, who works for a voting machine company, discovers that the voting machines are not functioning properly. She is blocked from sharing her findings. Meanwhile, Dobbs ends up in the Oval Office.
Eventually it is revealed that a computer glitch is responsible for Dobbs winning the presidency. Dobbs is left with the choice to stay in office or return to his job as talk show host.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962 Version)
The Manchurian Candidate is a political novel by Richard Condon. (According to Wikipedia, in 1998 C.J. Silverio asserted that Condon plagiarized from Robert Graves.) The novel is about the son of a prominent U.S. family who is brainwashed into being an assassin for Communists. The novel was adapted into movies in 1962 and 2004.
In The Manchurian Candidate an infantry platoon is captured during the Korean War. The platoon is taken to Manchuria. They are all brainwashed to believe that Sergeant Raymond Shaw is a hero who saved the lives of the platoon. He is awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war, Major Bennett Marco suffers a recurring nightmare. He later learns that another soldier is suffering with the same nightmare.
Thanks to Major Bennett Marco it is eventually revealed that Shaw is a sleeper agent who can be activated by seeing a playing card. After seeing the queen of diamonds card, he obeys orders from the Communists but then forgets his actions. Shaw’s KGB handler turns out to be his power-hungry mother Eleanor. She is working with the Communists to overthrow the U.S. government with the help of her husband, Senator Johnny Iselin. Major Bennett Marco discovers the plot and takes actions to prevent it from being carried out.
The 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate was directed by John Frankenheimer. The screenplay was written by George Axelrod. The 2004 screenplay was written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris. The movie was directed by Jonathan Demme and starred Denzel Washington.
See the related article: Books that deserve attention in the current political climate.