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The Second Civil War

by Glenn Erickson Apr 23, 2016

Is satire obsolete? Our appalling present political reality has surpassed some of the wildest jokes in director Joe Dante’s ‘exaggerated, outrageous’ 1997 cable movie. An immigration squabble snowballs until a renegade state governor closes his border and threatens to secede from the Union. It’s a ‘political idiocy’ version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World … and nineteen years later, we’re stuck living it.

The Second Civil War
DVD (2005)
HBO Video
1997 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date August 30, 2005 / 14.98
Starring Beau Bridges, Joanna Cassidy, Phil Hartman, James Earl Jones, James Coburn, Dan Hedaya, Elizabeth Peña, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, Kevin Dunn, Brian Keith, Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, William Schallert, Catherine Lloyd Burns, Jerry Hardin, Roger Corman, Rance Howard, Robert Picardo, Alexandra Wilson, Belinda Belaski, Jennifer Carlson, Sean Lawlor.
Mac Ahlberg
Film Editor Marshall Harvey
Original Music Hummie Mann
Written by Martyn Burke
Produced by Guy Riedel
Directed by Joe Dante


An interesting cartoon in this week’s New Yorker has a cartoonist tearing up his latest panel spoofing Donald Trump, because Trump just did the stupid thing depicted in his cartoon.

Satire today can’t keep up with reality. When it comes to predicting the future, some wicked social satires have scored pretty high. The champion in this league is I suppose Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, but there are many more — from Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst to Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s RoboCop. Plug together Broadcast News and the nutzo vibe of Mars Attacks! or 1941 and you’ve got The Second Civil War, an over-the-top satire of impossible politics… the kind that are now discussed in the papers every single day. The jokes come so fast that some fall flat, but we’re too busy keeping up to notice.

The project was initiated by Barry Levinson, who planned to direct but left to helm the theatrical film Wag the Dog. Joe Dante thus inherited The Second Civil War and ran with the project. Because it expresses a righteous liberal outrage, this HBO movie is of a piece with a pair of cable episodes Dante directed for Mick Garris’ series Master of Horror. The grotesque comedy Homecoming blasted the Bush administration’s war policies via a zombie theme. The chillingly serious The Screwfly Solution is a critique of rampant misogyny by way of end-of the-world paranoia. The fast-paced Second Civil War has a pace more frantic than Billy Wilder’s One, Two Three, and dozens of speaking parts. As many of the actors are from the Joe Dante stock company (yes, expect Dick Miller), we know Joe wasn’t just a gun for hire. It’s certainly a director’s challenge.

I’ve also read this movie being compared to Robert Altman’s Nashville. Both are political satires with skewed visions of America. When asked about Second Civil War Joe Dante has remarked that, in any given year, at least one of the film’s satirical themes – anti-immigrant hostility, political incompetence, media irresponsibility, America’s gun madness — seems especially relevant to current events. This year they ALL are, with a vengeance. It’s depressing.


A decent synopsis of this show would require two thousand words. I’ll attempt a thin slice of the plot framework with only 443 words. Islamabad is nuked in a regional dispute, and relief charity worker Amelia Sims (Catherine Lloyd Burns) arranges for a plane full of Pakistani orphans to be brought to a refugee camp in Idaho. Egged on by his advisor (Kevin Dunn), Idaho Governor Farley (Beau Bridges) refuses to admit them, citing the need for his sovereign state to take a stand against all forms of immigration. If Washington gets involved, Farley threatens to close the border and defend it with National Guard Troops. NN News director Mel Burgess (Dan Hedaya) talks Amelia into keeping the flight in the air so the kids will arrive at an hour more conducive to profitable news coverage. In the NN newsroom, the opinions of sage veteran reporter Jim Kalla (James Earl Jones) count for little. Journalistic squabbles among the staff (including Ron Perlman) are ultimately settled by the network executive Sandy Collins (Roger Corman), who always chooses a spin that will offend the fewest advertisers. Things are no more reasonable in Washington. The President (Phil Hartman) ignores his Chief of Staff (Kevin McCarthy) and Secretary of Defense (William Schallert) and instead takes the counsel of consultant Jack Buchan (James Coburn), who evaluates every crisis in terms of its effect on the upcoming election. On the powder keg that is now the Idaho-Utah border, NN reporter Vinnie Franko (Denis Leary) is backed up by his video cameraman Eddie O’Neill (Dick Miller), and eager for the career boost that such a big confrontation will yield. Facing off against each other are two ancient, gnarled commanders that are mentally still fighting old battles. The Idaho National Guard’s Col. McNally (Jerry Hardin) comes nose-to-nose with the hard-bitten U.S. Major General Buford (Brian Keith), like two bullies on a playground. Urged to project strength in the media, The President gives Governor Farley a deadline to back down, one timed so as not to interfere with the climax of a popular soap opera. Out in Idaho, Farley holds firm, but is barely paying attention: he’s preoccupied by his stormy extramarital affair with NN correspondent Christina (Elizabeth Peña). If the nation paid attention, they might be alarmed by the escalating standoff caused by irresponsible bad judgment in the White House, the Idaho Governor’s Mansion and the NN newsroom. Other states siding with Farley send him their own troops as reinforcements. Sniper fire interrupts an anti-Farley announcement in downtown L.A., and a pro-immigration crowd in San Antonio blows up the Alamo. Additional stupid blunders threaten to ignite a second Civil War. Frustrated by the way her cable station treats horrible tragedy as just more marketed content, NN anchorwoman Helena Newman (Joanna Cassidy) vents her anger on live TV.


The Second Civil War is an all-out ‘everything’s going crazy’ disaster comedy, like The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming or 1941. It is so crammed with characters and incident in that it also resembles Hellzapoppin’, a 1941 comedy dedicated to complete narrative anarchy. Writer Martyn Burke’s madhouse scenario emphasizes political ironies over slapstick or spectacle; it is funniest when showing that its caricatures are too real for comfort. The movie is structured much like Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove. It shifts constantly between three major places: Washington, Idaho and the NN newsroom. The reporters on site covering the armed standoff are like Kubrick’s fliers in the B-52 heading for Russia. The ultimate disaster occurs not because of a madman or a technical malfunction, but because a lame communication error sets off a military mutiny.

All of the jokes have a definite political point to make. Although the writing is so on target as to flatten some of the humor — many scenes play like political cartoons come to life — the image of a politically crazy America is entirely accurate. The ironies come fast and thick. Governor Farley cites the threat to the American culture by all those unwanted foreigners, but he loves Mexican food and is crazy in love with a Mexican-American reporter. Those rallying to his cause are gun nuts, racists, and idiots convinced that the Federal Government is going to take away their freedoms. If there’s an overall theme, it’s that America is chaotic because nobody has the public welfare in mind. Our leaders are obsessed with career image-making and our companies think only of profit. The Second Civil War was produced for cable TV, which often features nudity or ‘adult situations’ to set it apart from free broadcast TV. As everyone keeps their clothes on here, perhaps the constant swearing was added to compensate.

With its enormous cast and impressive newsroom set the reportedly inexpensive The Second Civil War looks lavish. The show plays like a full theatrical production, as opposed to something scaled down for TV audiences. It would be several years before viewers were touting The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men as superior to theatrical fare. Just enough military personnel and vehicles are on view to make us feel that war is breaking out on the Idaho-Utah border. A lot of this virtual production value is created by Dante’s fluid direction. Dante and his editor Marshall Harvey deserve a special prize for simple clarity — even with this dense screenplay we always know what’s happening and why.


Director Dante can’t make all the jokes funny but he sees to it that every player in this goofy mosaic catches the anarchic spirit. Dante adds a personal dimension as well; it’s his gift to give human edges to even the most schematic characters. Beau Bridges’ misguided governor is madly in love and thus earns our backhanded sympathy. The late Elizabeth Peña is adorable whether furious or in an amorous mood. Calm and unflappable James Earl Jones lends needed gravity to the newsroom madhouse. Jones’ voice will get a laugh of recognition, as it was for years the signature voice for CNN. In the Oval Office, Kevin McCarthy looks appropriately confused while William Schallert takes home the prize for straight man of the year. His ridiculously patient Defense Secretary has heard nothing rational from his President in years. The mischievous Denis Leary is more likeable than usual, and Dick Miller is his agreeable self (and looking hale and hearty). Dante associates Robert Picardo and Belinda Belaski put in pleasing appearances while the participation of Roger Corman is inspired — the news exec’s pinchpenny attitude is a lampoon of Corman’s own producing style. Finally, Jerry Hardin and Brian Keith make a fine pair of grizzled commanders — profane old coots excited by a sunset opportunity to once more play General Patton.

Phil Hartman puts the jokes across but his President isn’t very funny or interesting. Although the President is meant to seem an entirely hollow cipher, Hartman doesn’t make anything like the impact of Beau Bridges. James Coburn expertly picks his way through his complicated speeches — several stars must carry great quantities of exposition — but doesn’t find his character either. Coburn stays low-key because his consultant is not a charlatan — to him every diplomatic failure is a public relations failure. When Coburn delivers the film’s equivalent of a crazy ‘mineshaft gap’ speech, it’s somewhat of a letdown. Although the situation is different, the action in the oval office reminds me of Mars Attacks! where every satirical angle is perfect except the President himself: nobody liked Jack Nicholson’s image-obsessed marshmallow President in Tim Burton’s movie.


Every one-line bit player makes their mark in this organized chaos. Only a couple of stars are shortchanged by their roles. Joanna Cassidy’s anchor reads the bad news well but she hasn’t enough to do before her ferocious 11th-hour meltdown. Dan Hedaya’s news manipulator Mel is a marvelous whirlwind of a bad-boss bully, but Mel’s callous irresponsibility makes things seem totally hopeless from the beginning. That angle might put off some viewers — the ‘Hellzapoppin’ pace and style don’t start from a baseline of normalcy. Everyone is nuts from the get-go.

The Second Civil War came and went in 1997 without making the splash it deserved. It’s getting print attention now because current events have arrived at or surpassed some of its satirical exaggerations. The film’s nuclear strike in Pakistan is no longer unthinkable, thanks to the regional destabilization initiated by the Iraq War. The idea of a state seceding from the union is now a frequent talking point for jerk politicians seeking the media spotlight. Anti-government zealots have tried to seize public land for private use, raising private ‘armies’ to do so. The scapegoating of ethnic groups, minorities and undocumented immigrants is now a standard practice to gather a voter base of unhappy bigots. The film’s compromised Farley-Christina affair is now a commonplace, what with the myriad elected officials that have been caught in similar scandals since 1997. Cable News now turns every major crisis into a ‘branded line’ entertainment program, complete with graphic logos and star reporters. Dante’s film is actually less caustic than reality:  NN Cable News is motivated by simple greed, whereas some cable news channels now place political advocacy over truthful reportage of events.

The film’s conclusion doesn’t dodge the consequences. When the crisis spins wildly out of control, it pulls the rug from under the comedy much as does Dr. Strangelove. The effect is almost like the uncomfortably plausible non-comedy TV movie Special Bulletin:  ‘just another news crisis’ suddenly becomes a shooting war. If the crazies of The Second Civil War seem less funny today, it’s only because we’re sick of seeing politicians on the Six O’clock news behave far more outrageously. Mothers, if you let your sons and daughter make satires, warn them that the real world will turn whatever they do into an unexpected docu-drama.


HBO Video’s 2005 DVD of The Second Civil War is an acceptable enhanced widescreen transfer, released without extras back in 2005 and still available from online sellers. The show begins with a subtle main title, which I believe apes the graphic look of Ken Burns’ acclaimed TV doc series The Civil War. Do I assume correctly that original 1997 cablecasts of this show, before the widescreen TV changeover, were flat?  This title is definitely worth a reissue on Blu-ray. I only wish that Dante’s Eerie, Indiana were available in better quality, and that his Hollywood Blvd. and a 3-D The Hole were available here at all.

Oh, a final question — the show makes a topical joke about a Presidential announcement being carefully timed so as not to interfere with a TV soap opera. I have forgotten what, but I think the gag references a specific P.R. snafu. What politician discovered it was unwise to put the well-being of the public ahead of our constitutional right to see Luke and Laura?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Second Civil War
HBO Video. DVD (2005) rates:
Movie: Good + / –
Video: Good + / –
Sound: Very Good English + Spanish
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 20, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.