It's a shame that when asked about Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman collaborations most people will only know of the amusing "Meet the Fockers" rather than the wickedly funny political satire "Wag the Dog". Released back in 1997 and telling the amusing story of political spin doctors, Hollywood producers and a Presidential indiscretion it's a riot of comedy with a sense of just maybe this fictional tale gets close to the truth about how politics and news is manufactured to pull people's strings.
With just two weeks left to the elections, a scandal about the President and a young girl is about to break putting his re-election campaign in jeopardy. That's when the White House call in spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro - Taxi Driver) to try and fix things, leading him to contact Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman - The Graduate) to stage a fake war with Albania to take the focus away from the political scandal. But with the president's rivals and the CIA getting close to the truth, Brean and Motss must spin a bigger tale in order to keep the pretence going and save the President's campaign for re-election.
Although fictional, the basis of "Wag the Dog" is close to the mark with a Presidents indiscretion with a young girl and adds to the sense of although this is a make believe comedy about political spin it may have some sort of truth to it. From then on it's a clever comedy of exaggerated lies as a presidential aide, a spin doctor and Hollywood producer set about creating a phoney war to take centre stage rather than the scandal. It gets bigger and more outrageous the longer the movie goes on, but it's amusing as things don't go exactly to plan as the producer's imagination for spinning a line takes the story to monumental levels.
But it's not so much the comedy of the situations which makes it so entertaining but the combination of sharp witty dialogue and characters. Robert De Niro is just brilliant as the spin doctor, delivering quick fire lines which sound like they are made up on the spot. But at the same time his revelations about other political issues, and make believe wars just makes you pay attention. Dustin Hoffmann as the Hollywood producer, full of his own ego with ideas of grandeur is equally as good and the banter which flies between him and De Niro as they devise the fake war is both amusing and captivating. It all sounds so plausible despite being made up.
And De Niro and Hoffman are not alone as "Wag the Dog" is full of fun, entertaining performances most notably Anne Heche as public relations expert Winifred Ames. Her initial shock at how easy it is to spin a line about a fake war is brilliant so is her own concern about getting caught and the need to follow political procedure. In a funny scene she worries herself about whether an actress is an illegal immigrant whilst shooting a top secret fictional war scene; it's stupid but so amusing.
It's also the smaller touches which make it so amusing; the orchestrated song written in support of the war is just a hilarious touch, even more so as the song writer is a character called Johnny Dean who happens to be played by Willie Nelson. The make believe soldier they get who is meant to be trapped behind enemy lines is a psycho played by Woody Harrelson is just irrelevantly funny. And they aren't the only big names which appear because in various roles there are the likes of Denis Leary, William H. Macy, Kirsten Dunst and even James Belushi who puts in a cameo when he pleads for the Albanians to release 'Old Shoe'.
The thing is that "Wag the Dog" takes a simple idea, exaggerates it and in doing so makes it witty, clever and plants a seed of thought in your head that when it comes to politics the lengths politicians will go to cover the truth may be more unbelievable than you think.
What this all boils down to is that "Wag the Dog" is a smart, funny satire about politics and spin doctors. It's cleverly written, with a sort of element of truth to it yet exaggerated to the point of being funny. And with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman on fine form it's a movie which grabs you from the start and keeps you smiling though out.