Flashback: Wag the Dog

Splendidly acted, written with biting acuity by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin (from a book by Larry Beinhart) and directed in discreetly sidesplitting fashion by a very different Barry Levinson from the one who made »Sleepers,» »Wag the Dog» makes it impossible to trust any image-enhancing gesture that attracts national media attention. Particularly any gesture involving a cute pet. This is a movie, after all, in which political consultants film a bag of Tostitos and then digitally turn it into a kitten. It’s no small measure of the film’s sneakiness to say that this is almost the least of its dirty tricks. […]

Made in the witty screwball spirit of a Preston Sturges comedy, and filmed so fast (in 29 days) that none of its bright spontaneity gets lost, »Wag the Dog» essentially amounts to a huge inside joke. It’s possible that viewers indifferent to political and media chicanery will miss some of the barbs here, but those same gags will fill savvier audiences with wicked glee. With its comic sensibility solidly grounded at the place (a very tiny one) where political and media scruples meet, the film imagines a President with a problem. Eleven days before an election, a pass made at a young female scout is threatening to make headlines, and the opposition candidate is running commercials to the tune of »Thank Heaven for Little Girls.» What to do? Call in the consultants. Have them start a war.

Janet Maslin, i The New York Times.