'Wag the Dog' Director Barry Levinson Sees Those Trump-Era Comparisons (Q&A)

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Barry Levinson

"'Wag' was in the area of satirical absurdism and now we are living in absurdism," says the Oscar-winner.

On Christmas Day, 1997, director Barry Levinson's political satire Wag the Dog hit theaters. The film, which centers on a Washington spin doctor (Robert De Niro) who hires a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to fabricate a fake war to draw attention away from the sexual transgressions of the sitting president with one of his young female staffers, was released just one month before then-President Bill Clinton found himself embroiled in a similar scandal with 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by Clinton's administration. 

Many in the media at the time noted the uncanny similarities between Levinson's work of fiction and real-world events. Now, nearly 20 years later, Levinson's film once again is on the forefront of political discussion, with such pundits as economist Nouriel Roubini drawing comparisons between the film and President Donald Trump's recent attack on Syrian airfields as a distraction from ongoing discussions of his possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. 

Levinson spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the film's continuing legacy and his thoughts on living in an "age of absurdity." 

You’ve made many political satires throughout your career; why is it that Wag the Dog continues to be relevant?

Well, I guess it's the invention of certain things that seem to hold through time. The concept of changing the lead story by diverting it to some other story. Denying things continually — just deny, deny, deny. Wag is not some kind of documentary, it's just looking at the tools that are available. Now you've got more tools, you've got social media and just post stories through all types of back channels that can get some traction. The public doesn't know what to believe anymore. We don't know what stories are supposedly true, this idea of "fake news." We watch it on what I guess you would call a split-focus. It’s half entertainment and half mystery. We can't make sense out of it. There's too many events that happen now where we can't make any sense out of it, whatsoever.

Would you call the comparisons that people are drawing between Trump’s attack on Syria and your film fair?

Once you take a position and you go, "Oh, that must be a Democratic position," half the people don’t listen to you, or vice versa. We don't really listen to one another. We are a divided nation in the worst sense of the word, and we don't hear the other side. I would like once, once, in watching one of these shows where the talking heads are there and you've got some Republican and some Democrat, where one of them said, "That's true. That's a good point of view, I hadn't thought of that." It's like they go on there and they're two boxers wearing different colored trunks, and they have to box until it's over. I think what we're in now is this split nation of which there's huge mistrust of the other side, and I think we all, in the end, pay the price for this.

There are conflicting points of view for many events in the news nowadays, as well.

Right. When I was young, if that was what was reported, that was basically the truth. Now, we're not sure what's the truth because we've played the game so often that no one really knows. That you can deny what you actually said is a phenomenon. That you actually say it and deny that you said it. You would've thought that couldn't be. It is unfortunately the step that we have taken. Wag was in the area of satirical absurdism and now we are living in absurdism.

Is Wag one of your films that you revisit in this new era, or is what's happening something that you're drawing new inspiration from?

You can fake things much easier then you could back then. You can create images on social media that look 100 percent believable, but they're not. Not to mention all the stories that you read. If you create a visual that actually captures the imagination, that's not real, it will look real and that will spread at such lightning speed that by the time it's found out, it has already done its damage. It's a very, very scary time that we're living in. I say its an age of absurdity.

Your work often deals with these very scary issues, yet you always find a way to inject humor into them.

I think it’s the best way. It's hard to top Dr. Strangelove. You can take the idea of the bomb and Kubrick turned and tweaked it in a way so that we're actually laughing as we're about to incinerate the Earth. We had great fear in the early '60s that we were going to bomb ourselves into oblivion. So, there were two films made within months of each other: Dr. Strangelove and Failsafe.

Failsafe was a very well-done film, a drama about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. And Strangelove was the darkly comedic version of the same subject. Almost exactly the same story, and Strangelove is the one that lived on. I think there is a thing that when we look at ourselves and some of our darkest moments, if we can find that edge that allows for humor to be part of it, it becomes more profound than just the dramatic interpretation.