Director Barry Levinson has crafted a wickedly funny political satire, that, while consistently tickling your funny bone, rings astoundingly true.
The President of the United States has a problem. The election is only a few days away, and a devastating scandal is brewing. After a one-on-one meeting with the President, a young Firefly Girl scout accuses the commander-in-chief of sexual misconduct. Normally a scandal as despicable at this one would ground a standard campaign. However, the President has brought in Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), spin doctor extraordinaire.
Conrad plans a diversionary tactic. He needs a story that will distract the press until the election. What greater distraction could there be than a war? He concocts a fictional war against Albania, and to pull it off, he enlists the talents Hollywood producer Stanley Moss (Dustin Hoffman). Together, the two conspire to create a masterful imaginary war, one which will be completely convincing to the media and the gullible American public.
The pair gather around them an interesting menagerie to pull off the scam. Stanley pulls in such diverse characters as the Fad King (Denis Leary), who’s got his finger on the pulse of popular culture, and country singer Johnny Green (Willie Nelson), who tries to come up with a popular theme for a popular war. And, since every war needs a hero, they dig up Sgt. William Schumann (Woody Harrelson), a nutcase of a soldier who they set up to be an idol to the country.
Probably the most disturbing thing about Wag the Dog is its utter plausibility. Although the whole thing is way over the top, there’s a kernel of truth underlying every step taken in the film.
De Niro and Hoffman are obviously having a ball in this movie, and their sheer enthusiasm rubs off. Hoffman, by a narrow margin, gives the better performance of the two, as the eternally optimistic producer who’s got a million stories to tell.
The supporting cast is terrific as well, particularly the five-beers-short-of-a-six-pack sergeant Harrelson, Anne Heche as a Presidential press secretary who is amazed at the level of deception that Conrad and Stanley manage to create, and William H. Macy as a CIA agent who may be on to the whole scheme, but isn’t quite ready to match wits with Conrad.
Wag the Dog is easily one of the year’s best comedies, and one of the best political comedies to come around in a long, long time.