Academic journal article Film & History

The Collaborative Dog: Wag the Dog (1997)

Academic journal article Film & History

The Collaborative Dog: Wag the Dog (1997)

Article excerpt

The Collaborative Dog: Wag the Dog (1997)

When we think of the term collaboration in regards to film, we tend to think of writers and those other people hanging out together, talking earnestly (or not so earnestly in the case of comedy writing teams) about how to make the film. Or how to make it better. Or at least how to keep from making it worse.

With some films, however, collaboration extends much further on both ends: the relationship of reality to the making of the film and the relationship of the completed film to reality. This is perhaps a variation on the old issue of whether films reflect reality or influence it. The correct answer, with many films, is both. Citizen Kane reflected the life of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but it also convinced Davies that she was as lacking in talent as "Susan" was in the film, when in fact she had been a wonderfully gifted comedienne.1 Dr. Strangelove was inspired by the head of the Strategic Air Command in the fifties, General Curds LeMay, and a then-obscure academic, Henry Kissinger (represented in the film by General Ripper and Dr. Strangelove, respectively), but in the later sixties the film satire seemed a truthful portrayal of the way the government and the military were behaving in Viet Nam. And then there is the 1997 film Wag the Dog.

Wag the Dog begins with Lee Atwater. Atwater was one of George H. W. Bush's slimiest political operatives, and his negative campaigning helped Bush win the presidency in 1988. Among the many people bothered by Atwater's techniques was Larry Beinhart, the author of several novels about private investigator Tony casella. When the Gulf War took place in 1991, Beinhart wondered if somehow Atwater had been behind it. The problem was that Atwater had died of cancer the previous year. But what if...

The 1993 novel that emerged from Beinhart's imagination was American Hero.2 It is primarily the story of a private investigator, Joe Broz, a Viet Nam vet now working for Universal Security. He is protecting the movie star Maggie Krebs, whose latest film has been cancelled. She is suspicious about the cancellation, which leads Broz to discover its director, John Lincoln Beagle, has been set up by super-agent David Hartman to create what becomes the Gulf War. The private eye story and the BrozMaggie relationship take up most of the novel, but Beinhart proposes that the dying Atwater had prepared a memo and passed it to James Baker, the Secretary of State, suggesting Bush start a war to insure his re-election in 1992. Beinhart has Atwater, Baker, Bush, and other real people as characters in his novel, and he has them and Beagle work toward what we know, or think we know, took place in the Gulf War. On page 158 he has Beagle watching a World War II film in which one bombardier promises to put a bomb right down a smokestack, which on page 221 Beagle decides to use, which becomes the famous image from the Gulf War.

The film rights to the novel were purchased for $25,000 by Robert De Niro's company, Tribeca.3 The job of writing the screenplay was giving to screenwriter Hilary Henkin. Her previous credits included Fatal Beauty (1987), with Whoopi Goldberg as the smartest cop on the case; Road House (1989), with Patrick Swayze as a club bouncer, and Romeo Is Bleeding ( 1993, released 1994). Romeo, which Henkin also produced, is a dark, violent film about a corrupt cop (Gary Oldman) who tells gangsters the location of protected witnesses so a hit man can kill them-except the hit man is a woman, Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin), who is crazier and tougher and more violent than the men in the film. As the cop tries to kill her, she nearly kills him, cuts off her own hand to provide fingerprints to prove she is dead after she has killed the cop's mistress and has set the body up to be found and identified as the hit woman. "Over the top" was used in more than one review. Reading American Hero, it would seem obvious why Henkin was hired: she could handle the P. …

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