I can vividly remember the opening night for Wag the Dog. It was back in 1997, I was in high school becoming a budding film lover, and I went with a group of friends to see this bitter black comedy about Hollywood and politics and I can remember being one of the few people in the theater who seemed to love what they were seeing. It was very topical material at the time, and still is today, with razor-sharp satire always at the forefront, and a whiff of pompous, know-it-all-humor that probably alienated many people. Energetically directed by Barry Levinson and craftily adapted by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet from Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero, Wag the Dog centers on a presidential sex scandal, and the Washington DC-based spin doctor (Robert De Niro, wonderfully affable and light on his feet) who is called in for crisis management by the White House.
His big idea? He’ll start a fake war with Albania and spread various media rumors and lies in an effort to deflect the country’s attention from the real scandal at hand. De Niro enlists the help of an aging, full-of-himself Hollywood mega-producer, perfectly played with smarmy glee by a bronzed and absurdly coifed Dustin Hoffman, who brings along his various production contacts so that he can “produce a war” that nobody will ever realize is fake. And one that he can, rather frustratingly, never tell anyone he had a part in creating. The comic mileage that’s derived from this ironically painful fact for Hoffman is a constant source of hilarity all throughout this happy-to-be-mean little movie. And when you actually pay close to attention to the dialogue, you’ll notice just how tack-sharp the spoken words are, with various individual lines carrying a wicked punch (“No more make-up, she’s just been raped by terrorists!”).
An amazing supporting cast rounds out the brittle edges of this scathing media takedown, with Anne Heche, a diseased Woody Harrelson, rapid-fire Dennis Leary, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, John Michael Higgins, David Koechner, William H. Macy, and Kirsten Dunst all showing up for memorable cameos and bit performances. But the black heart and acidic soul of this punchy little movie belongs to the amazing team of De Niro and Hoffman, who both seemed to be in love with the idea of occupying the same space as one another, generating tremendous chemistry, and letting the zippy screenplay do most of the heavy lifting. Mamet and Henkin’s script throws out a variety of nastily barbed zingers, and Levinson’s snappy direction is in perfect tandem with Robert Richardson’s agile, hot-white cinematography. Also, the idea that this movie was released exactly one month before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke is just too wild to contemplate.