How the great Dustin Hoffman had never paired with the unstoppable Robert De Niro before the release of 1996’s Sleepers is unbelievable. The two defined an age of acting that saw the likes of The Graduate, The Godfather II and The Deer Hunter. Their work shaped a whole generation of acting, so for the two to appear in Wag the Dog together as its leading stars, the expectations of what they should provide are through the roof. I expected a quality, nail biting yet oddly charming political drama that sees De Niro and Hoffman working together to bury a sex scandal the President has gotten himself involved in just days before the election.
What happens instead is a thoroughly boring movie that relies on the energy of Hoffman and the professionalism of De Niro. Director Barry Levinson of Rain Man acclaim fails to realise a potentially brilliant script throughout Wag the Dog. His direction has certainly improved since his 1989 Best Picture winner, yet the work he provides us in this Hoffman and De Niro pairing is truly forgettable. Everything within the film is bland, dull to the point of not being bad but at the same time not being all that good either.
By far the best part of the film is the performance of Hoffman. He plays film producer Stanley Motts, a man holding himself in contempt for never quite winning an Academy Award. Tasked by Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) and Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) with staging a fake war to distract from the Presidents sexual assault case, Wag the Dog soon becomes a game of seeing which performer can outdo the other. Hoffman wins, with Motts becoming the only character with any depth to him. Brean and Ames are mere machines with one setting throughout, whereas Hoffman brings much more emotive pieces to the film.
It’s at least impressive to see Hoffman and De Niro interact with one another so frequently. The actual political parts of the film and how it soon spirals out of control like an episode of The Thick of It is very neat and rounded well. Most of the issues that are brought up are sorted out by engaging with another issue and forgetting about potentially interesting subplots. Why Woody Harrelson appears for what is essentially ten minutes of screentime is perplexing, as he adds nothing to the film with his bleak performance.
Going into this and expecting a nailbiting political drama isn’t the way to go about Wag the Dog. It’s a shallow piece of film that doesn’t really do all that much, and considering the star power involved this comes off more as a surprising dud than anything that can be considered mediocre. Themes that have been done hundreds of times over and better improved elsewhere in books, television and other films, Wag the Dog clearly has issues with its writing direction, and there’s only so much Hoffman and De Niro can salvage.