The President Of The United States is found having a quick shag so a spin doctor stages a war to divert attention from the Prez's zipper. At the time of writing, Bill Clinton's (alleged) dalliance with Monica Lewinsky is practically old news as he seeks to flex his political muscles in the direction of Saddam Hussein. Biting satire or frightening prescience? Barry Levinson's low-budget comedy is a bit of both but less than the sum of these parts.
When the leader of the free world is caught with his hand up a girl guide's uniform, things do not look well for the political machine that espouses life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The ensuing sex-gate scandal could spell the end for the Mr. President in the forthcoming election unless spin doctor Ronnie Brean (De Niro) can run some interference. And who better at fooling the public than Hollywood? Bringing White House aide Heche along for the ride, Ronnie enlists the help of movie producer Stan Motss (Hoffman). Their plan? To fabricate a war. Their proposed target? Albania . . .
Written in part by David Mamet, Wag The Dog is a lovely idea, with credibility buoyed by its incredible timeliness. But, content with its initial premise, the movie lacks the necessary bite to develop the satire further, to the point where it's difficult to spot whether Washington or Hollywood is the target. Maybe the point is that they're now more or less one and the same, but the film seems more concerned with its characters than what they have to say.
This is another of Levinson's back to basics productions (see also Jimmy Hollywood) and the fact remains that despite his Baltimore movies (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon), he is simply not a personal filmmaker. His true talent lies in eliciting top performances from well cast actors. Thus, we have De Niro not mugging in a comedy, Heche as the perfect audience touchstone and Hoffman, seldom better in a turn that is reputedly his take on Uberproducer Robert Evans. Great acting, great filmmaking, half-realised idea - but nonetheless entertaining.