The Second Civil War
This satire of a White House in crisis mode, as Ohio threatens cessation from the United States, was originally to have been directed by Levinson. Who made the same year’s intermittently effective Wag the Dog. Intermittently effective also describes Joe Dante’s HBO movie, which offers occasionally sharp and never-more-topical things to say about the buzz issues of immigration, personal sovereignty and media manipulation yet finds itself rather inert dramatically, when it needs to be propulsive.
It may be that Dante was the wrong guy for the task, or simply that the means of making this kind of media satire, nearly two decades on, now look rather antiquated. Today such a script would be shot handheld, ever restless, caught in a crescendo of events, a cross between The Thick of It and 24. It would certainly have disguised the budgetary restraints and made up for the manner in which Martin Burke’s screenplay (co-writer of Top Secret!) has numerous targets but lacks a clear method for coalescing them.
Dante commented in an interview in Joe Dante by Neil Baskar and Gabe Klinger, “every time I see it, some different aspect of the movie is in the news”, adding that everything that was wrong with the country is still wrong, if not more so. The hot topic of immigration is central to the plot, as Idaho governor Jim Farley (Beau Bridges) refuses to allow an influx of orphan refugees after India drops a nuke in Pakistan. While the White House is in a state, calling in James Coburn’s spin doctor Jack Buchan to smooth the less than sharp President’s (Phil Hartman) tormented brow, Farley is more preoccupied with his ex (Elizabeth Pena), a reporter of Mexican extraction.
In Burke’s scenario, not exactly startlingly cynical behaviour includes moving immigrants to states where they will vote for the President and, particularly amusingly, adjusting the deadline for Idaho to re-open its borders to 67½ hours (from 72) in order not to clash with a cliffhanger instalment of All My Children. The media’s influence looms large, with Dan Hedaya’s news director at NN network manipulating the landing of the plane full of orphans so it coincides primetime (agreed to by the Give to the Children Corp charity rep; everyone is buyable, as the Sioux Nation allows the army to cross their reservation in exchange for a casino next to Little Big Horn). In the ultimate in arse-covering, Buchan allows the clash between the US Army and the Idaho National Guard (which includes representatives from other National Guard units) to play out rather than admitting he misheard the governor’s plan to resign as an intention to secede from the US.
The casual hypocrisy of Farley, having an affair with a child of immigrants and eating “the usual” – fajitas – for breakfast, isn’t really that pointed, and the idea of a rather dopey president, in the light of Reagan and Bush Jr, seems rather passé (“This President’s going to end up as confused as a goat on AstroTurf unless we are careful”, warns Buchan, who habitually invokes past presidents so as to stir his into action). That said, the late Hartman is as peerless as you’d expect. James Earl Jones, as the voice of a bygone age of earnest reporting, is appropriately sincere and authoritative, in an Edward R Murrow kind of way, but the proceedings generally lack the weight his presence authorises.
Dante commented “what I really like about the picture is that there really aren’t any villains in it, that everybody has their own reason for doing what they do and they think it’s for a good cause”; they maybe wrongheaded but are never caricatures. Caricatures might have lent Second Civil War some bite though, strange as that may seem. It’s only when the picture spirals into the horror of open warfare and military firing squads that it attains this, and even then, it doesn’t feel tonally of-a-piece; indifference leads to incitement and back again. There’s a fantastic scene where Joanna Cassidy’s anchorwoman Helena Newman, aghast at what she has just witnessed, attempts to rouse Ben Masters’ co-anchor Matthew Langford from his teleprompted reportage, banging his head against his desk while informing him “There IS no other news!” It’s the closest the picture gets to Network-style indignation and confrontation, and it needs more of it.
The best, most consistent element, is Coburn’s spin doctor, “a political facilitator” rather than a lobbyist, gifted a stream of memorable lines (“Dead supporters are the worst. I mean, they take up a ton of your time, and then where the hell are they when you need them?”) and brutal honesty about the election process (the President won, like all do, “for the sizzle, not the steak”; it’s only afterwards that “the poor bastards have to bite into fat and gristle”). He gets his former president quotes from a pool of limo drivers (“Wow, that Eisenhower had a way with words”) and, only partially joking, suggests that, in order to guarantee future voters, “What we do is take the Irish off birth control”.
The movie is littered with pointed observations and asides; the army is partially immobilised because, following Free Trade talks, the US Stopped making parts. Then later they stopped shipping parts. One of the militia members complains that they don’t want foreign banks taking their money… Footage of various comparable internal strifes is nixed by the network in favour of the last Rwandan massacre, as they have no Rwandan advertisers who might be offended. But a lot more of Second Civil War just rather bumbles along, and despite the galvanising presence of Dennis Leary, much of the on-the-ground reporting is unadorned and unimaginative. An extended confrontation between National Guard and US Army bigwigs, shown to be respectful but really flinging abuse at each other, is actually quite tedious, and the attempts at showing divisions of ethos in the newsroom (while ordering milk to go with a donut) lack flair.
The shoot went well for Dante, and he welcomed the fine cast (which includes repeat players Hartman, Leary, Ron Perlman, William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Kevin Dunn, Roger Corman, Robert Picardo, and, of course, Dick Miller, here as a cameraman). Unfortunately, after underwhelming test screenings, HBO began pressing for changes, leading to “my second most negative experience making a film”. His post mortem: “In terms of how good I knew the film could have been, before all the post-production meddling, the end result was very disappointing – more so than any other movie I’d done since Explorers”.
He’s hard on The Second Civil War then, and hard too on the later Looney Tunes: Back in Action, but unless there was something in there that gave it drive and momentum (one might argue Back in Action has too much of the those), I doubt the unexpurgated version was a lost masterpiece. Dante may be better poised as a filmmaker to take aim at targets indirectly, from the fringes of a plot, rather than making politics central to his features. Certainly, that’s tended to work best for him in his career, and as an exception The Second Civil War flourishes fitfully but is cumulatively rather languorous.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.