After being caught in a scandalous situation days before the election, the president does not seem to have much of a chance of being re-elected. One of his advisers contacts a top Hollywood producer in order to manufacture a war in Albania that the president can heroically end, all through mass media.
An unnamed President of the United States is caught making advances on an underage “Firefly Girl” (the movie’s fictional equivalent of a Girl Scout) inside the Oval Office, 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 fictional war in 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). The hoax is initially successful, with the President quickly gaining ground in the polls after appearing.
When the CIA learns of the plot, they send Agent Young (Macy) to confront Brean about the hoax. Brean convinces Young that revealing the deception is against his (and the CIA’s) best interests. But when the CIA—in collusion with the President’s rival candidate—reports that the “war” did happen but is drawing to an end, the media begins to focus back on the President’s sexual abuse scandal. To counter this, Motss decides to invent a hero who was left behind enemy lines in Albania. Inspired by the idea that he was “discarded like an old shoe”, Brean and Motts have the Pentagon provide the team with a soldier named Schumann (Woody Harrelson) around whom a POW narrative is constructed, complete with T-shirts, additional patriotic songs and faux-grassroots demonstrations of patriotism. At each stage of the plan, Motss continually dismisses setbacks in the deception as “nothing”, comparing 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. On the way back, their plane crashes en route to Andrews Air Force Base. The team survives and is rescued by a farmer, who kills Schumann after he attempts to rape his daughter. Seizing the opportunity, Motss stages an elaborate military funeral for Schumman, claiming that he died from wounds sustained during his rescue.
While watching a political talk show, Motss gets frustrated that the media are crediting the president’s upsurge in the polls to the bland 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 offer of an ambassadorship and the dire warning that he is “playing with his life”. After Motss refuses to back down, Brean reluctantly orders his security staff to kill him. As the movie ends, a TV newscast reports that Stanley Motts has died of a heart attack in his estate, the president was successfully re-elected, and an Albanian terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for a recent bombing, although it is ambiguous if the latter was a true event or simply a continuation of Brean’s fictional war.
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