Wag the Dog is an incredibly witty movie, a rare blend of cynicism, humour, and intelligence. The movie is about a spin doctor working for the Presidential re-election campaign, who must create a situation that will distract the public from the President's scandalous affairs.
To this end, Conrad Bream (Robert De Niro), the spin doctor, with the help of movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), manages to convince the public, using media manipulation techniques, that America is at war with Albania. The headlines that result from this manipulation soon take precedent over the President's alleged tryst with a young girl.
Of course, such an elaborate hoax cannot be sustained without others getting in the way, and the movie is about how, despite all odds, Bream and Motss manage to pull it off. The movie chronicles the success of this hoax, with a healthy dose of non-seriousness and humour.
Wag the Dog requires a greater suspension of disbelief than most action movies do: The President stages (the appearance of) a war without any approval from Congress. The President appears to be present in Albania without actually being there and no one raises an eyebrow. Even a country which no one has heard of in the U.S. and the international community would sit quietly during these allegations and be completely ignored by the media. But this exaggerated tale only makes the satire stand out more sharply.
Besides the humour, the areas where Wag the Dog succeeds is in letting us know that the media is in the business of making money, and they will report whatever sells the most product. Likewise, the Presidential campaign is not about the events the occur during a Presidential term, but the spin that is put on them.
The most disturbing thing about Wag the Dog is that it shows how easy it is to whip up the American populace into a frenzy using patriotism as a dangling carrot. Every event conjured up by Bream--the war, the martyr (played brilliantly by Woody Harrelson), the theme songs---are carefully crafted to incite the populace. And the fact of the matter is that the general populace follow the media, even the tabloid kind, like sheep. The "tail" wagging the "dog" symbolises those who control the media, and the "dog" which lets itself be wagged by its own tail are represented by the American people. What Wag the Dog doesn't show, but what we should realise, is that real life events can be staged more easily than the hoaxes in the movie. Consider, for example, the current escalation of U.S-Iraq rhetoric just as President Clinton facing a series of personal scandals.
The performances are spectacular all around. Both De Niro and Hoffman produce some of their best work. The acting by the supporting cast is also excellent. It is rare for me to notice the music in a movie as I'm watching the movie (exceptions are movies like Star Wars where anthems are created), but in this case, Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) does a brilliant job with his subtle guitar work, especially during the beginning. Don't miss this one.