Movies You Might Have Missed: Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog

This black comedy about a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) who fabricate a war to distract the electorate is perfect viewing during election week

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The Independent Culture

There haven’t been many great films made about politics but occasionally, in works such as Being There, All the President's Men and Mr Smith Goes to Washington, filmmakers will produce something so refined that accusations of partisanship are rendered moot. Wag the Dog, while not as acclaimed as the aforementioned masterpieces, undoubtedly deserves to be considered one of the great political satires.

The film, written by David Mamet and directed by Barry Levinson, was inspired by Larry Beinhart's novel entitled American Hero. The book’s ingenious premise is that the Gulf War was artificially staged as a ploy to get George HW Bush re-elected to a second term. Like a scathing forerunner of Argo, Wag the Dog concerns a Washington spin doctor (Robert De Niro) who hires a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to script and choreograph a fake war with Albania in order to distract the electorate from a potentially damaging sex scandal days before a presidential election. Forget Meet the Fockers, this is a collaboration between the two greatest actors of the modern era that is worth seeking out.

The black comedy proved remarkably prescient since it was a released a month before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and the subsequent bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton administration. Incredibly, during filming, the director and two stars had an impromptu meeting with the President at a Washington hotel. Clinton asked De Niro what the film was about but the actor felt too awkward to respond so simply looked over to Levinson. The director was just as reticent to offer details so Hoffman decided to step in, later commenting: “I just started to tap dance. I can't even remember what I said.”

Both leads received no upfront salary for their work and produce performances as good as you’d expect. Hoffman is thought to have based his character on legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans, although he maintains his own father was the primary model. His producer is intelligent but insecure and feels genuine regret that he will receive no credit for his part in proceedings.

The verbal sparring between the pair is typical of Mamet’s work and it is a joy to hear such dialogue emanate from the mouths of masters. Filming took just 28 days, during a gap in the production of Levinson’s Sphere, and yet this scathing, hilarious satire is the far more accomplished work and ought to be compulsory viewing during election week.