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Second Civil War, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Okay Political/Media Comedy"
3 stars

Not as good as some other HBO productions like "Barbarians at the Gate" and "And the Band Played On," but it stands above many of the two-hour mediocrities we get from network television.

Political satire can be done both broadly and wittily if there's enough imagination and discipline at hand to keep it enjoyable without spilling over the edges, otherwise it becomes nothing more than generalized hodgepodge that doesn't satisfactorily hit its target because, well, when it's the broad side of a barn there's not much challenge to it, and therefore hasn't enough bite to make much of a lasting impression. The made-for-HBO movie The Second Civil War errs with an off-tone serious final section that leaves a somewhat jarring aftertaste, but until then it's generally amusing stuff for much of its ninety-six minutes. It's the near future, and the liberal but unscrupulous governor of Idaho has announced the closing of the borders to appease the state's right-wing reactionaries' anti-immigration stance, which winds up coinciding with the scheduled arrival of hundreds of Pakistani children displaced by India's use of nuclear weapons against its neighbor (other U.S. states have taken in refugees from other countries; there's even a Chinatown district in Rhode Island now.) This pits the governor against the president of the United States, quintessentially obsessed with winning a second term to where he's neither for or against the governor's plan -- it just depends on what the latest poll numbers indicate. A second-rate New Jersey-based news network welcomes this conflict, though: with the Gulf War a past memory and their ratings in decline, the director fastens upon the governor's scheme to boost the station's Nielsen's share from single to double digits; and being that he has his ace reporter already in Boise, a Hispanic woman who just happens to be currently bedding the married governor, he's counting on the inside scoop to keep him ahead of the competition. Beau Bridges, who was galvanizing as the responsible-minded musician brother in The Fabulous Baker Boys, plays the governor, and clearly relishes the chance to play such an opportunistic bastard; and as the equally-unscrupulous news director, the superb Dan Hedaya, best known as the cheated-on husband in Blood Simple, is given the chance to move around a lot and shout orders with the brio of a Captain Bligh. It's not lost on the audience that the White House and news station aren't entirely dissimilar -- they're both vying for the latest angle to cater to the mainstream masses who've forsaken substance for sound bites.

Initially, the White House doesn't take the governor's plan seriously, but when the state's National Guard is mobilized and the governor's inflammatory comments increase, public opinion starts to sway in the governor's favor. In response, the president deploys soldiers to the Idaho borders, with America on the brink of the first inner-country conflict since the Civil War, with the governor taking his cues from his knowing lieutenant governor and the president from the best media lobbyist in the business. In other words, "whichever way the wind blows." The screenwriter, Martyn Burke, who co-wrote the mediocre 1984 spy spoof Top Secret!, has come up with several funny situations and a cluster of funny lines. When the president decides to threaten force and give the governor a seventy-two-hour deadline, he's advised to scale that back because it'll interrupt the season finale of the much-watched soap opera All My Children, which might cost him the female vote: he makes it sixty-seven-and-a-half hours instead. When the news director can't get his Washington, D.C. reporter on the line, he asks "Do we still have a White House or has Tokyo foreclosed on it?" The supporting cast, including Denis Leary, Kevin Dunn, James Coburn, Elizabeth Pena and Ron Perlman, is first-rate, with the only exception Saturday Night Live's Phil Hartman, who's bland and plays the president colorlessly (needed is the panache Alan Alda brought to the party as the goofy commander-in-chief in Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon). And the director, Joe Dante, burrows into each and every scene with the fearlessness of a bull terrier. Dante, who's done everything from The Howling to Gremlins to Innerspace, might not seem like the ideal choice for the job, but he gets a good deal of momentum going and manages to give agility to the many talking-heads scenes that might otherwise grow placid. He's also sprinkled the proceedings with his usual troupe of character actors (Kevin McCarthy, Dick Smith, William Schallert), though they're not given much to do, and when violence gets introduced into the equation late in the game, Dante stages it too straightforwardly for the genre he's working in. Overall, The Second Civil War, lacking the acute dark wit of the David Mamet-scripted Wag the Dog, is vague and not as barbed as it could be, but for a harmless Saturday-afternoon entertainment it'll suffice.

Not worth doing cartwheels over, but not to be easily dismissed, either.

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originally posted: 02/20/14 12:55:09
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  15-Mar-1997 (R)



Directed by
  Joe Dante

Written by
  Martyn Burke

  Beau Bridges
  Joanna Cassidy
  Phil Hartman
  James Earl Jones
  James Coburn
  Dan Hedaya

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