Levinson's best movie since Diner has a premise in some ways as old as the 1978 thriller Capricorn One, about a manned flight to Mars that turned out to be staged. In Wag the Dog, the event that's faked is a war, but the process that's being dummied up is American democracy, and the victim is the American community. Yet the movie doesn't become a heavy-handed, moralistic fable; it remains a waggish tale, not a finger-wagging horror. Levinson takes viewers so far inside his satiric vision of a Beltway-to-Bel Air image-making corps that it's hard not to get caught up in the team spirit. The movie says that this is the only genuine spirit left in America -- and it threatens to leave actual corpses in its wake.
After a Camp Fire Girllike teen blows the whistle on the president's Oval Office misconduct, D.C. spin doctor Connie Brean (Robert De Niro) decides that the chief executive needs to galvanize support for a Gulf War-ish conflict, albeit in tiny, mysterious Albania, which is suitably "shifty, standoffish." (Speaking of mystery: We never see the president's face, only his back.) Brean knows that what Americans recall from past wars are images, slogans, merchandising; his plan is to deliver that stuff on the airwaves. That's where Dustin Hoffman comes in. Brean and presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) enlist legendary Hollywood producer Motss (the "t" is usually silent), played by Hoffman, to craft a scenario of terrorism in Albania and a suitcase bomb coming in through Canada to gear up the country for war.
What's original about the movie's take on the spin doctor, Brean, is that he isn't a James Carville or Lee Atwater. Brean scarcely projects any personality, much less a colorful one, and he won't take any credit for his successes -- he just wants to do his job and disappear. He's the political functionary for an age when no one plays the posterity game -- when everybody realizes that the country's attention span has shrunk to minutes and the memory bank is depleted, too. All he cares about is results; all he cherishes is his professional reputation.
If Seinfeld is the comedian of nothing, Brean is nothing's kingpin. In the movie's early going, when he advises the president's men (and women) to plant questions about Albania in the press and then "Deny, deny, deny!," he could be counseling Bush on Irangate or James Cameron on the troubles of Titanic. But there's one huge difference: Brean urges his clients to deny a controversy that doesn't exist, and then, when it's been fabricated, 'fess up to it. De Niro comes up with his canniest performance since his sizzling cameo a dozen years ago in Terry Gilliam's Brazil; he transforms Brean's combination of observance and recession into a treasure trove of comic surprises, as well as a font of evil wisdom. At one point a CIA agent (played by William H. Macy) figures out the scam -- "Two things I know to be true: There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war." Macy does one of his riotous deadpan specialty numbers as the self-righteous CIA man; in one terse scene, he electrifies the character, giving him the lightning certainty of a human lie detector. But when he faces Brean, the poor guy doesn't know what he's up against. De Niro's understated knowingness envelops all the people around Brean like a hilarious existential blob, whether they're from the CIA or the motion picture academy. While Motss, the Mr. Fix-it of the back lot, responds to setbacks with the high-pitched snarl, "This a walk in the park," Brean sits back and assumes a browsing position. Actually, he's speed-reading every situation.