The film follows a Washington, D.C. spin doctor (De Niro) who, mere days before a presidential election, distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer (Hoffman) to construct a fake war with Albania.
The President of the United States is caught making advances on an underage "Firefly Girl" less than two weeks before Election Day. Conrad Brean (De Niro), a top-notch spin doctor, is brought in to take the public's attention away from the scandal. He decides to construct a diversionary war with Albania, hoping the media will concentrate on this instead. Brean contacts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to create the war, complete with a theme song and fake film footage of a photogenic orphan (Kirsten Dunst) in Albania.
When the CIA learns of the plot, they send Agent Young (Macy) to confront Brean who convinces him that revealing the deception is against his best interests. The CIA announces that the war has ended, but otherwise maintains the deception and the media begins to turn back to the President's abuse scandal. Motss decides to invent a hero who was left behind enemy lines, and inspired by the idea that he was "discarded like an old shoe" has the Pentagon provide him with a soldier named Schumann (Harrelson) around whom he constructs a further narrative including T-shirts, additional patriotic songs, and faux-grassroots demonstrations of patriotism. At each stage of the plan, Motss continually dismisses setbacks as "nothing" and compares them to past movie-making catastrophes he averted.
When the team goes to retrieve Schumann, they discover he is in fact a criminally insane Army prison convict before their plane crashes en route to Andrews Air Force Base. The team survives and is rescued by a farmer, but Schumann attempts to rape the farmer's daughter and the farmer kills him. Motss then stages an elaborate military funeral, claiming that Schumann died from wounds sustained during his rescue.
While watching a political talk show Motss gets frustrated that the media are crediting the president's win to a tired campaign slogan of "Don't change horses in mid-stream" rather than Motss's hard work. Despite previously claiming he was inspired by the challenge, Motss announces that he wants credit and will reveal his involvement, despite Brean's warning that he is "playing with his life". Motss refuses to back down, so Brean reluctantly has him killed and makes it look as if he had a heart attack. The president is successfully re-elected and a news report about a violent incident in Albania is shown, but it is ambiguous whether this is a true event or simply a continuation of the fictional war.
The title of the film comes from the idiomatic English-language expression "the tail wagging the dog", which is referenced at the beginning of the film by a caption that reads:
Why does the dog wag its tail?
Because a dog is smarter than its tail.
If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.
Hoffman's character, Stanley Motss, is said to have been based directly upon famed producer Robert Evans. Similarities have been noted between the character and Evans' work habits, mannerisms, quirks, clothing style, hairstyle, and large, square-framed eyeglasses; in fact, the real Evans is said to have joked, "I'm magnificent in this film." Hoffman has never discussed any inspiration Evans may have provided for the role, and claims on the commentary track for the film's DVD release that much of Motss' characterization was based on Hoffman's father, Harry Hoffman, a former prop manager for Columbia Pictures.
The award of writing credits on the film became controversial at the time, due to objections by Barry Levinson. After Levinson became attached as director, David Mamet was hired to rewrite Hilary Henkin's screenplay, which was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero.
Given the close relationship between Levinson and Mamet, New Line Cinema asked that Mamet be given sole credit for the screenplay. However, the Writers Guild of America intervened on Henkin's behalf to assure that Henkin received first-position shared screenplay credit, finding that—as the original screenwriter—Henkin had created the screenplay's structure as well as much of the screen story and dialogue.
Levinson thereafter threatened to (but did not) quit the Guild, claiming that Mamet had written all of the dialogue as well as creating the characters of Motss and Schumann, and had originated most of the scenes set in Hollywood and all of the scenes set in Nashville. Levinson attributed the numerous similarities between Henkin's original version and the eventual shooting script to Henkin and Mamet working from the same novel, but the WGA disagreed in its credit arbitration ruling.
The film featured many songs created for the fictitious campaign waged by the protagonists; these songs include "Good Old Shoe", "The American Dream", and "The Men of the 303". However, none of these pieces made it onto the soundtrack CD. The CD featured only the title track (by British guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler) and seven of Knopfler's instrumentals.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Wag the Dog has an approval rating of 85% based on 72 reviews, with an average rating of 7.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Smart, well-acted, and uncomfortably prescient political satire from director Barry Levinson and an all-star cast." On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating, the film has a score of 73 out of 100, based on 22 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews"
Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars and wrote in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, "The movie is a satire that contains just enough realistic ballast to be teasingly plausible; like Dr. Strangelove, it makes you laugh, and then it makes you wonder."
The film was nominated for two 70th Academy Awards: Dustin Hoffman for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Hilary Henkin and David Mamet for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film was also entered into the 48th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize.
American Film Institute recognitionAFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"This is nothing!" – Nominated
On April 27, 2017, Deadline reported that Barry Levinson, Robert De Niro, and Tom Fontana are developing a TV series based on the movie for HBO. De Niro's Tribeca Productions will co-produce along with Levinson and Fontana's company.