The Second Civil War (1997)
A very uncivil comedy
So, Joe Dante’s unjustly obscure 1997 HBO movie, The Second Civil War, landed on Binge recently as part of the Aussie streaming service’s ongoing process of trawling through HBO’s more obscure properties for content. Having not watched the thing in years since I lost or gave away my second-hand VHS copy, I jumped on it with gusto. Still stands up. Then, because I’m a freelancer with a penchant for luxuries like living indoors and eating hot meals, I pitched around a retrospective review, and I reckon you can guess who pulled the trigger on that one. Today, already planning on sitting down to write the piece, I woke up, under a cat who has gotten markedly more affectionate since the weather turned cold, to this headline:
… which is really fucking interesting. Horrifying, too, but interesting. History has caught up with The Second Civil War. You probably haven’t (it’s not your fault — it’s been hard to find). So, let’s go …
In the nearish future, India nukes Pakistan. That’s a pretty bad deal for Pakistan, who get fridged pretty quickly to put the focus on the U.S. in general and Idaho, of all places, in particular, where Governor Jim Farley (Beau Bridges, who copped an Emmy for his efforts) is rocking an anti-immigration stance and has announced that he is closing the state’s borders before a planeload of freshly-orphaned Pakistani kids arrives. It’s a pretty hypocritical position, considering he’s trying to rekindle his affair with Mexican-American reporter Christina (Elizabeth Peña), who is pregnant with his child, much to the consternation of his press secretary, Jimmy Cannon (Kevin Dunn).
The White House pushes back or at least tries to — the President (Phil Hartman) is pathologically averse to any kind of decision-making, deferring to slick lobbyist and consultant Jack Buchan (James Coburn), which results in wonderful inanities like a 72-hour ultimatum being whittled down to 67 and a half hours, so the President’s speech doesn’t interrupt the soap opera All My Children.
Monitoring and somewhat exacerbating the situation is news network NewsNet, with veteran News Director Mel Burgess (Dan Hedaya) and his team (including Ron Perlman and James Earl Jones) in the nerve center, and a camera team that includes Denis Leary and Dick Miller in the field. It’s the latter who clocks that other states are sending National Guard units to bolster Idaho’s forces, making the situation much bigger than one rebel Governor. And it’s NN that calls the crisis “The Second Civil War,” branding being important in these scenarios …
That’s a lot of plot and a stacked cast, right? Written by Canadian scribe Martyn Burke, who knows a thing or two about absurdity, having co-written Top Secret! (1984), The Second Civil War sprawls, encompassing a big cast of characters and a lot of short scenes and bits of business designed to give us a kind of mosaic view of the developing situation, held together by the odd bit of gravitas-laden voiceover from James Earl Jones. The film revels in exploring the ridiculous but plausible. Thanks to immigration, in the film, American demographics have shifted in some states to wild degrees: Rhode Island is predominantly Chinese, while an Indian-American senator from Alabama speaks with a thick Southern drawl. There’s a bit of business about immigrant populations pulling the ladder up behind them, which is uncomfortable to parse but not necessarily untrue — here in Australia, a goodly number of staunchly anti-Communist Vietnamese refugees who came over after the fall of Saigon are lifelong LNP voters, for example, and the LNP attitude to refugees is quite well known (I’m not letting Labor off the hook here, so don’t @ me).
What does this have to do with a little-known HBO flick from the late ‘90s? Well, art might be a product of the time it’s made, but the attitudes we bring to bear on art are our product of our time, our lived experiences, making for a kind of gestalt context combining both. With The Second Civil War, while it was always a good film, watching it in 2021 is kind of amazing. I feel similar to how I feel when I’m watching some of Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood output: what was well over the top, brazen satire back in the day now seems plausible, and at times almost quaint. After the Trump administration, what’s unbelievable about a moron in the Oval Office? After The Murugappa family of Biloela, what’s far-fetched about immigration being used as a political poker chip? After the Capitol Insurrection, what’s crazy about a Second Civil War?
The Second Civil War’s great gift is that it’s funny until it’s not, our laughs at the farcical of the situation and the ridiculous nature of the key players giving way to genuine tension as Dante and Burke remind us that, no, these narcissistic idiots who are ostensibly in charge are going to cost lives. There’s a bravura scene where two military commanders, one in the Idaho National Guard (Jerry Hardin), one in the U.S. Army (Brian Keith), have a toe-to-toe confrontation across the battle lines. From a distance, it’s a somber, portentous moment; up close, when the audience is allowed to hear what they’re saying to each other, it’s a petty dick-measuring competition.
Later, U.S. troops summarily execute Idaho militiamen for sedition.
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s the failure to come to a satisfying resolution. That may be intentional; when your theorem is that the wheels can come off when the powers that be use a crisis to pursue personal and political agendas (gosh, what a year we’re having), it’s a bit of a cop-out to put the genie back in the bottle by the time the final act wraps up, and so this might be a case where a film’s thematic intent and the assumed narrative structure are at odds. That’s not a deal-breaker, though. The Second Civil War is a great piece of modern satire and, increasingly, a remarkably prescient one. Maybe make it a double feature with Wag the Dog (1997) to really drive the point home.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson