Wag the Dog uses the fun paranoia by suggesting in a low-key comedic way how we might fake a war – a war whose weapons are patriotic songs, mandated spontaneous shows of support (um) and the same special effects that made Titanic sail again.
As the White House gears up for the home stretch of a reelection campaign, top advisors are mortified to learn of the president’s sexual liaison with a girl not even old enough to drive. Brought in to steer them through this storm is Brean (Robert DeNiro), a spin doctor who’s seen it all…including, he claims, faked footage of a bombing in the Persian Gulf “war.” (“Remember the bomb going down the building’s chimney? We shot it in a warehouse in Falls Church, Va., at 1/10 scale.”)
Brean, all laid-back and confident, starts manipulating the news. He also enlists the help of hyper Hollywood producer Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to shoot a quick American-Albanian war that people will only see on television. Woody Harrelson is hilariously blank as the guy chosen to play a war hero, Kirsten Dunst plays a youthful starlet who’s annoyed to learn that she can’t put her work as an Albanian refugee on her resume (if she did, she’d cut short her career and life real quick), and James Belushi plays himself – but ordered to act as if he were an ancestral Albanian, so he can go on television to plead with his people to end this terrible conflict (um, well…)
This plays out in the hands of screenwriters Hilary Henkin and David Mamet – adapting the novel American Hero – and director Barry Levinson, who gives most of his projects at least a tinge of comedy. (He produces the great, gritty NBC drama Homicide, which can be brutally hilarious.)
All the characters seem to speak in the same low voices, dealing with the fake war in a very businesslike manner. Political and Hollywood egos (all very inflated) also power the war’s production, since they power Washington and Hollywood anyway. Ego is the biggest target of the satire in the film – it causes all the problems in the story.
Music adds to the fun, too, with songs ranging from good – like a faked ’30s tune which is conveniently found in the Library of Congress – to intentionally bad. And one anthem is so close to “We Are the World” it’s scary. (It made me remember a Reagan-era parody: “We Arm the World.”)
Wag the Dog is not quite rollicking stuff, but there are plenty of chances to laugh out loud, from the dorky first scene – which ties into a great ego moment for Dustin Hoffman late in the film – to the ironic last news report.