Wag the Dog 1997 ***

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In the ‘post-truth’ era, it’s easy to get nostalgic for a time when news was news. David Mamet’s playful Wag The God, back in 1997, shows there’s nothing new under the sun as a Hollywood producer and a spin doctor contrive a war to cover up a Presidential sex-scandal. With heavyweight leads in Robert de Niro (as the PR) and Dustin Hoffman (as the Robert Evans-type producer) , Wag the Dog feels stagey in a good way, never resorting to action when it can show through character and conversation how the media can create it’s own truth. Now that it can be divorced from the Bill Clinton era, Wag The Dog seems to hold a more universal truth and ever. Anyone looking at the Trump/Clinton debate circus and wondering ‘how could this happen?’ would do well to take a look at this clever film about what sticks and what doesn’t, and why post-truth is one step closer to post-apocalypse.

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Network 1976 ****

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Way ahead of its time in terms of disaffection with the media, Sidney Lumet’s 1976 drama is still frequently referenced today; the character of Howard Beale, weatherman turned prophet, has come to stand as a symbol of social anger about the way television in particular can distort and suppress public thought. Played by Peter Finch, Beale is a force of nature, wigging out on air and challenging authorities to stop his messianic message of revolution. Paddy Chayefsky’s knowing script also takes the time to establish firmly what Beale is rebelling against; Faye Dunaway and William Holden do great, if less iconic work as the network execs who try to figure out how best to control and exploit Beale’s sudden popularity. Inspired by a real on-air tragedy, network is a monumental film in the history of media self-analysis.

The Ploughman’s Lunch 1983 ***

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Richard Ayer’s film from an original script by prestigious British novels Ian McEwan was catnip to the chattering classes in 1983; made for Channel 4 television, it was released in cinemas and seemed to represent the mood of the time in the UK. Parts of the film were captured against real backgrounds, with the Falkland’s war in the background and scenes filmed at the Conservative party conference. This Medium Cool verisimilitude extends to the characters; Jonathan Pryce is James Penfield, a journalist who is facing up to his own financial and spiritual bankruptcy; Rosemary Harris, Tim Curry and Frank Finlay are amongst the gallery of characters who he bounces off. The Ploughman’s Lunch has a title that refers to the simple meal that workers used to enjoy; this film represents the kind of unequivocal, intelligent television that Britain used to make before it sold out to game-shows and reality television filler.

Wrong Is Right 1982 ***

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Also known as The Man With The Deadly Lens, writer/director Richard Brooks adapts a novel by Charles McCarry called The Better Angels. Sean Connery stars as TV newsman Patrick Hale, who discovers that two stolen nuclear bombs in suitcase are the catalyst for an exploration of late 70’s geopolitics that eerily predates the Iraq war; even the World Trade Centre finds itself under threat. The intention of Brooks’ film is satirical, but amidst the escalating absurdity, Wrong Is Right does a good job in nailing sociological tends in both media and politics, presumably the reason this film is so rarely seen.