After the allegations that Bill Clinton showed his biological weapon to White House employee Monica Lewinsky, Barry Levinson's Wag The Dog has received much more Stateside publicity than it probably deserves. The film's war-covers-up-sex-scandal storyline, along with Hoffman's practical impersonation of legendary producer Robert Evans (Chinatown, Marathon Man), are just a little too close to reality.
Shot in pseudo-documentary style, this film is fast-paced, smart, incredibly clever and occasionally very funny. It's based on a simple idea: that political spin can inspire fervent American patriotism; that using this blinding love of the USA (and the right media propaganda) can make the public believe anything. So when the President is accused of becoming too personal with a young girl, the faceless spin-doctors wheel out implausible slices of cunning: fly important generals up to Boeing; wake the Albanian desk at the CIA, then deny that there is an Albanian situation; and deny sending B-3 Stealth Bombers to Europe. It's all a believable lie.
The three main characters work well together as they weave the tangled web. De Niro is laconic and all-knowing. ("Remember the Gulf: 1,500 missions a day; but all we saw was one shot of a laser-guided bomb falling down a chimney. I was there when we filmed it - a one-tenth scale model on a Hollywood backlot.") Lining up with him are Hoffman, who's hilarious as the producer for whom any problem (including an important fatality) is merely an excuse for an anecdote; and Anne Heche, the rational presidential aide and questioner, who knows their plot is verging on insanity. Harrelson (as a handy POW), William H Macy (a suspicious CIA man) and Denis Leary (a merchandising and image promoter) have to be content with small roles.
Notable highlights include a staging of a We Are The World-type patriotic song which is promptly dumped in favour of a more suitable old-style ballad entitled Old Shoe, and some great throwaway lines, particularly from De Niro.
In many ways, Wag The Dog is a celebration of what Hollywood is capable of; the notion that the film industry can create a believable war and win over the entire country by showing it on TV. But the idea is less fulfilling than the reality, and the film falls down, particularly in the last third, when the idea grows stale and Levinson realises that he's boxed himself into a tight corner and only an extensive burst of farcical clichés can release him.
The end result is that, although Wag The Dog is clever, funny and satirical, it fails to deliver everything that you hoped it would, and ultimately leaves you feeling empty.