Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Analysis of "Wag The Dog"

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Contexts help to determine the meanings we make of a text. Using examples from a feature film you have studied, show how your understanding of the film was shaped by the interaction of your own expectations, attitudes and values with those in the text.


The construction of a feature film is very significant in that it aids viewers to gain an understanding of the meanings being conveyed. The film Wag the Dog by Barry Levinson is an American satire which demonstrates how easy it is to whip up patriotic frenzy, and how dubious the motives sometimes are. Through exposure of the underlying issues of media manipulation and corruption of the USA’s democratic system, viewers are made to question their faith in values and attitudes regarding democracy, authority and the media. The values and attitudes evolving from the issues raised in this movie is conveyed to viewers through a variety of filmic conventions such as selection of shots, dialogue, camera angles, music and symbolism.


America is known as a powerful democracy but in Wag the Dog, Levinson confronts viewers’ values and attitudes towards this notion through the construction of this film. We are confronted with images of American icons such as the White House, the Capital building and other Washington monuments, during the opening scene of Wag the Dog. Americans regard these icons as of great importance to them as they vest honesty, integrity and democracy in these institutions. But this film challenges that view by reinforcing viewers to view these icons as facades of the concentration of political power of the USA. This view is further reinforced when we see Bream, Ames and another lady walking down a flight of stairs in the White House. As we are given a close-up shot of their feet hastily descending down the stairs, the lighting also gets darker as if to denote they are going underground. There is also a shot of them as if they are being caught on a security camera. Connotations of subterfuge and secrecy fill viewers’ minds, and we get a sense that beneath the seat of government lays darkness and evil. There is a particular montage of a multi-racial choir singing arousing patriotic song called ‘American Dream’, which includes the following words and phrases ‘courage’; ‘strength’; ‘free’; ‘we have the right to fight for democracy and keep our country free’; ‘the American spirit’; ‘our country has been the rock of liberty’. This montage is juxtaposed with Bream, Moss and the others making jokes about their fabricated stories. These techniques encourage viewers to believe that the values espoused in the song only exist in the form of rhetoric. Through a colorful range of techniques such as montage, lighting, camera angles and music, this film has been constructed to challenge the views that the audience hold of America being a democratic society.


The case of authority is another issue brought up in this film. Americans are brought up to regard the President as the main source of power in America and that his presidency upholds such principles and values as liberty, honour, truth and integrity. In Wag the Dog, viewers are given a reality check as it encourages them to think that the presidency is about looking after the interests and persona of the president and that the media and other power groups such as the CIA run the most powerful democratic government in the world, instead of the president himself. The office of president is seen as corruptible and that the president’s assistants are prepared to go to sinister and unlawful lengths to save the reputation of the president. Conrad Bream, the Whitehouse adviser, is also the one responsible for diverting the public’s attention with his media hoax in order to protect the president’s standing. He is seen from a low-angle shot at the beginning of the film, while contemplating the idea of distracting the public from the sex scandal. This camera angle emphasizes the dominance and power of Bream. He is always seen with a prominent red scarf, which contrasted against his dark clothes spell out danger and wickedness. We do not see the president when he is making his speech on TV, which has been composed by Moss. We only see the autocue of Moss’s words and as we hear the sentimental words of the speech such as “Merciful god, and a supreme power”, there is a montage of the white house and various shots of the city. This technique emphasizes the meaningless and phony nature of the president’s words.


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There are no shots and images of the president as he is relegated to a very minor role in the film. This particular selection of detail is to persuade viewers to believe that the president is also demoted to a minor role in running the country. Moss’s dialogue encourages viewers to believe that the media has more influence in running the country than the president does as he specifically states, “He can’t end the war, he’s not producing this. This is my picture not the CIA’s picture.” This quote also suggests that, at times, other groups such as the CIA manipulate the truth and make decisions about the way the country is run. There is another scene whereby they are shooting the fabricated story of the war in Albania the president says that he wants a white kitten use d instead of a Calico kitten, and Moss solemnly says, “I hate it when they start to meddle.” This further reinforces the fact that even when involving himself in petty issues, the president still gets in the way of the real business of running the country. Thus a variety of techniques have been used to construct and reinforce the notion that the president is more concerned with his image and that authoritarian power does not rest with the president.


In Wag the Dog, the media is depicted as a group consisting of creative but cynical and self-serving people who manipulate the public by lying and by using film techniques to present a constructed and mostly fictitious version of events for their own selfish ends. The American people in turn are seen as gullible and easily influenced by the media. The recurring motif of the television set and its images are littered throughout this movie. They are seen in a variety of settings airports, bars, restaurants, stores, houses and aeroplanes. The fact that the television seems to be omnipresent reinforces the notion that the influence of TV media on our lives is compelling. Levinson sequences and structures a particular scene whereby the Bream is seen fabricating a story about the president receiving a sheaf and giving his coat in turn to the girl’s grandmother. This is then followed by the television version of the fabricated story. Viewers are able to see that this sentimental and supposedly humanitarian version of events presented in the media is in fact fallacious and insensitive. We are confronted with a montage of street scenes of ordinary American people being affected by the hype surrounding the fake war. There are people throwing their shoes in public places and wearing patriotic T-shirts, while a patriotic song “We are American” is being played in the background. Unlike us the viewers, these people are unaware that it is all a fabrication. Viewers are able to then see that the American public is extremely vulnerable and mindless in their acceptance of everything the media tells them, which includes being patriotic. We also feel a sense of disgust that the people pulling the media’s strings are doing this for extremely questionable motives. The success of the reinforcement of these notions on viewers is due to the contexts of the film.


Wag the Dog contains just enough realistic ballast to be teasingly plausible and the biggest irony of it is that just a few months after this film was released, the then President of the USA, Bill Clinton, was involved in a sex scandal. But amongst the satire and the irony projected in this movie, is the daunting question of whether the information we are given through the media does have a profound function of deception. Levinson has successfully shaped viewers’ concept of the feature film Wag the Dog by questioning their system of values through a wide variety of filmic codes.





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