|LIT – 344 Comedy and Satire
Dr. Strangelove versus Wag the Dog
One would expect two American satirical movies created 33 years apart to be very different. American society, government, culture, and public opinion changes rapidly. Comedy and satire are time-sensitive. Yet, the movie Dr. Strangelove created in 1964 and the movie Wag the Dog from 1997 have a surprising amount in common.
Both movies are based upon books and their main similarity is in overall
plot topic, war. Yet, the movies’ wars are conceptually different. Dr. Strangelove’s theme relates to an overtly nuclear war and its dire consequences which was a heightened public fear in the 1960’s. Wag the Dog’s war is terrorism incited which is America’s main threat, today. These two wars bloom from similar seeds for they are both created intentionally. Dr. Strangelove’s war is started by a deranged military general comically named Jack D. Ripper. He believes the “Commies” are trying to destroy us with fluorinated water. Wag the Dog’s war is a trumped-up scheme to divert public awareness from American Presidential sexual misconduct. One is a military screw-up, the other a public relations media cover-up.
The openings of the movies are similar in technique. Dr. Strangelove opens with this disclaimer: “It is the stated position of the United States Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this movie.” This sets a satirical stage for the viewer does not know whether to take it seriously or not. Wag the Dog opens with this brain-teaser: “Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary describes satire as: trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly. This dog tail riddle is satirical for it is a precursor to the vice and folly to be exposed in the movie. Dr. Strangelove’s disclaimer is immediately followed by a documentary-style recitation. Wag the Dog’s riddle is immediately followed by a Presidential Campaign Advertisement. Both formats draw the audience in and progress the satirical themes of the movies.
Two specific character archetypes are apparent in both of these movies, the blowhard and the rube. Dr. Strangelove’s blowhard is the character General Buck Turgidson portrayed by the actor George C. Scott. He is over-confident, overly zealous, loud, macho, and thinks highly of his own military skills and sexual prowess. Turgidson actually goes so far as to suggest killing ten to twenty million people “tops” as a military strategy. Wag the Dog’s blowhard is the character of the Hollywood producer, Stanley Motts, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. Motts is so egotistical and full of himself that no matter what problems he and his cohorts encounter he keeps insisting “this is nothing” and goes on to bloviate about his past experiences. He is also credit-hungry and wants praise for his deceitful wrongdoings.
As for rubes, Dr. Strangelove’s character Major T. J. “King” Kong portrayed by the actor Slim Pickens is a bona fide hick. He speaks with an exaggerated drawl and totes his cowboy hat with him on military missions. His hysterical remark, “Well I've been to one world fair a picnic and a rodeo and that's the stupidest thing I ever heard…”epitomizes the rube archetype. Wag the Dog’s rube character is the convict, Sergeant John Schumann, portrayed by the actor, Woody Harrelson. Though his behavior is attributed to the fact that he needs anti-psychotic medication, he still looks and acts like a stereotypical rube.
The highly-recognizable archetypes of the blowhard and the rube help to relate the satirical humor in these movies to their audiences.
Notable lines are also common to both works. Dr. Strangelove’s is the hilarious, “You can’t fight in here; this is a war room.” Wag the Dog’s line, “TV destroyed the electoral process,” is satirical but not hilarious.
Conspiracy is also a shared motif in these satirical comedies. Dr. Strangelove’s General Jack D. Ripper believes the communists are perpetrating a conspiracy to weaken men’s “bodily fluids” and “lower their essence” which translates to render them impotent. Wag the Dog’s entire plot is based upon the conspiracy to cover-up the President’s sexual misconduct. Dr. Strangelove’s plot, however, makes no effort to conspire to cover-up deranged Ripper’s war moves. This implies that back in the 1960’s there was little fear of the media getting word out to the public.
The media and its power to persuade and dupe the public is a major theme of Wag the Dog. Yet, only one reference is made to the power of the media in Dr. Strangelove. It is that the Russian Ambassador gets his information from the New York Times.
Distrust and dishonesty are conveyed through satirical comedy in both films. In Dr. Strangelove the distrust exists between the countries of America and Russia. In Wag the Dog, it exists between the government, media, and public.
One notable difference between the movies is that Dr. Strangelove contains much more sexual innuendo than Wag the Dog. Also, Wag the Dog has a major female role and Dr. Strangelove does not.
Yet, each movie has its group of dunces. Dr. Strangelove’s is its military personnel and Wag the Dog’s is the public at large.
In the end, the movies have similar outcomes. In Dr. Strangelove the physical world is destroyed. In Wag the Dog, the concept of reality is destroyed. The public is fed so many untruths by the media there is no way for them to know what is real or true anymore.
Both of these movies are excellent examples of American satire. Dr. Strangelove uses wit, irony, and sarcasm to expose the vices and follies of the United States government and discredit it. Wag the Dog does the same but adds to its “hit list” the media and the mentality of the American public.