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Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman in "Wag the Dog." (New Line Cinema)

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Full Coverage: Clinton Accused

Full Coverage: Bombing & Retaliation

Essay: The Tale That Wagged the Dog (Washington Post, Jan. 26)


Cinema & Cynicism:
Look Familiar?

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 1998; Page B01

A beleaguered president orders up a nasty little war in order to get his sexual misconduct off the front page. The jets fly, the smart bombs vector in, the explosions blossom like perfect tulips across the blue electronic screens of the postwar American hearth.

Who could have imagined such a cynical ploy? Everyone, it turns out.

From street corners to television studios to the Pentagon briefing room, the reaction was the same yesterday: Maybe a neat little bombing was President Clinton's way of changing the subject. This was, after all, the premise of "Wag the Dog," although in that recent movie the war was fake. Real bombs would have been too cynical.

Thus Clinton's foreign policy adventure sailed forth into movie-cynicized air. If, as the leaders of Congress and the military rushed to assure us, the president's action is a genuine attempt to punish those who've spilled American blood and offended American pride, then it won't matter what the pundit class and the public make of it. If genuine, its message is contained in the 1,000 pounds of high explosives in the warhead of a Tomahawk cruise missile. Try arguing with a wave of concussion and shrapnel traveling at 4,000 feet per second as it vaporizes the flesh off your bones, Mr. Terrorist.

But if the true target of the bombs is a cynical distraction of the American public, it's bound to fail, because we've already seen the movie. We know how it ends! We know that Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are behind it. It was better when Willie Nelson did the music. We know it's spin, fluff, attitude, morphing.

What we see here is the latest twirl in the long, odd, accelerating waltz of real and imaginary cynicism. It is a dance in which politicians act cynically, which inspires Hollywood to tell cynical stories of politics, which in turn persuade the public to view politicians with a more cynical eye. And so the cycle goes.

This play and counter-play between what is done and what is imagined is fascinating. Look merely at a few movies about political corruption, each a shocker in its time, now each a comedy of banality. Consider first of all "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," that indictment of machine politics on the Boss Pendergast level. In Frank Capra's film of 1939, the heroically gentle and genuinely beguiling Jimmy Stewart first didn't notice, then ignored, but finally fought to expose the machine. His scoop: stuffed ballot boxes, strong-arm stuff at the polls, land fraud, municipal corruption.

The American public was shocked, shocked, especially when Claude Rains (who would utter "shocked, shocked" in "Casablanca" three years later) tried to kill himself in the Senate cloakroom, out of pure, bitter shame.

Was that a different world, or what? Pure bitter shame actually existed in politicians.

But here's the price of heroic exposeĽ and muckraking: Somehow the shocking becomes commonplace. Try making a movie today – or even a mere 10 years after "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" – that hinges on stuffed ballot boxes, strong-arm stuff at the polls, land fraud and municipal corruption, much less bitter shame.

In some way, a movie like "Mr. Smith" prepped the ground for even more wretched excess. It was as if Hollywood inspired politicians to shock us even more. What was that Rains character compared with Richard Nixon? You could never prove it at a clinical level, but at the intuitive level, does it not seem that between politics and the movies there's an odd, subtle race going on, as each in its own way tries to top the other? And onward and onward it goes. In "The Best Man," an early '60s contribution to the culture of political cynicism, Gore Vidal dramatized a battle for the presidential nomination in which two candidates all but eviscerate one another as they try to get an aging president's endorsement. Who knew the Republicans could play so rough? The movie's message: Politics at the national level was bitter, violent and ugly, not the civics lesson-neat process as usually portrayed. And in fact, the meaning of the film is utterly cynical. When at last the two contestants have shattered each other, another man is chosen, a complete mediocrity whose lack of character and charisma will offend neither wing of the party. It is accepted with a wink and a smirk and a slug of bourbon that he is, indeed, the best man.

At least in that case there was a political process, however cynical. A decade later in "The Candidate," politics was nothing but empty manipulation. Robert Redford played a face with a name who was plucked cynically to run against a complacent incumbent for the senate. He found he enjoyed being corrupted and soon his irony and cool amusement were gone; he fought hard to win, surprising even himself with his new-found focus and abilities. And, pulling off the miracle of miracles, he then faced a terrible reality: He had nothing to say, he believed in nothing, he had no idea what to do next. A senator without a thought in his head! Shocking then, but . . . not now, not even a little bit.

"JFK" worked the conspiracy beat, adding paranoia to the mix. Now the government – as represented by a nefarious CIA – was plotting to remove a gallant liberal president who would have gotten us out of Vietnam (and thus prevented the career of Oliver Stone, who would have just gone on to be another Wall Street stockbroker). In this film the government we see is not the real government at all. Real power is in the hands of the intelligence spooks. (The actual CIA couldn't even predict the fall of the Soviet Union when it was on CNN, but no matter.) These chthonic forces were capable of dark, ruthless deeds, utterly removed from the unruly processes of democracy, essentially ungovernable.

Surely, in its way, "JFK" made the darker possibilities of "Wag the Dog" inevitable, but other suspects include Nixon, Richard Condon, Roger Ailes, Watergate, "The Selling of the President" and "I didn't inhale." The movie follows as two old pros, a spin master and a Hollywood producer, conspire to convince a gullible media that we've just gone to war in remote Albania, as a way of diverting their attention from the president's sexual follies with a teenage girl. Using the high-tech capacities of the electronic age, they actually invent the war, a victim, a theme song and, finally, a lost hero, all engineered to get reporters weeping so hard they forget about the president's psychopathic libido.

How does a screenwriter get more cynical than that? It is said that in Hollywood, after the attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, cocktail chatter had it that the bombings were mere pretext for the air assault that was initiated yesterday. Could they know something out there? I doubt it.

More likely, the airstrikes and the justifications for them are real. Grand conspiracies are hard to muster, no matter what Hollywood tells us. Still, yesterday's news was viewed through a prism made in Hollywood – as it always inevitably is.

And that's why, if it were a ploy, it would be doomed to fail. Clinton would have forgotten the first rule of show biz: Timing is everything. And also rule No. 2: The sequel is never as good.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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