Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog is a remarkably prescient political satire that had the amazing luck to be released in the theaters just as the Monica Lewisnsky affair was hitting CNN. Based on Larry Beinhart’ s novel American Hero, with a screenplay by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, the film takes place two weeks before a presidential election when the incumbent President, hoping for another term, is caught in a sex scandal with a teenage girl . Spin Doctor Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro) is called in by a White House press officer (played by Ann Heche in an under-written part) to deflect the public’s attention from the scandal . The two soon enlist one of Hollywood’s most respected producers, Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman) to help pull the media’s strings and to produce a war with Albania as a diversion.
We get to see an amazing, cynical display of media concocted politics as the trio manufacture film of an Albanian peasant girl fleeing a war torn village, get a fad doctor (Denis Leary) to create instant yellow ribbon style patriotism, get a songwriter (Willie Nelson ) to write We Are The World and Ballad of The Green Berets styled anthems and produce a war hero (a psychotic convict played by Woody Harrleson) when the C.I.A. puts a premature end to the war. Motts, undaunted by anything, let alone the President or the C.I.A., sees it as the best production of his career. Unfortunately, Motts wants the one thing for his efforts he can’t have – credit.
For the most part, this is fast, smart piece of satire, with many genuinely funny moments. But at times the screenplay seems too genteel to be effective, as if everyone involved was scared to push the envelope too much (Mamet’s usual blue poetry is almost absent here). Still, there’s some wonderful moments here and much to enjoy, not the least of which is Hoffman’s wonderful performance (reportedly based on producer Robert Evans). It’s one of the best roles he’s had in ages, and makes the film well worth seeing.