Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1997)

13. The Second Civil War

On the surface, most of Joe Dante's films do not seem especially political. Sure, you can read into the way the gremlins tear down the suburban settings or the towering symbol of big business. Or the darkness hiding under a similarly ideal community in “The 'Burbs.” I mean, that's exactly what I've done throughout this Director Report Card. Yet, for the most part, the chaotic comedy and monster kid homages in Dante's films do not provide probing insight into America's society or politics. He seems like a film nerd making movies for other film nerds, more often than not.

However, Dante has occasionally touched upon explicitly political messages in his work. Weirdly, this side of the director tends to come through more in his television work. Look at his two “Masters of Horror” episodes. “Homecoming” is an explicit critique of the Bush II administration while “The Screwfly Solution” directly takes on American gender politics. An earlier example is “The Second Civil War.” A television film made for HBO, it aired in 1997 without drawing much attention. (Though it did win a Primetime Emmy and drag a few obscure nominations here and there.) In 2019 though, this critique of a divided America comes off as way more relevant than ever anticipated.

Set at an undetermined point in the then-future, “The Second Civil War” takes place in an America on the brink of upheaval. A charity has announced that they are planning on transporting a group of Pakistani refugees – the result of a nuclear war along the Indian border – to their base in Idaho. In response, the xenophobic governor of the state, Jim Farley, is planning on closing the state's borders. This creates a constitutional crisis. The President of the United States issued an ultimatum: Either desist with the closed border in 63 hours or national troops will be sent in. A racially divided United States proves more supportive of Farley, who has his own personal problems, than anticipated. Soon, America is on the verge of civil war, as militias and bodies within the U.S. military threaten to stand against American troops on the Idaho border.

In 1997, “The Second Civil War” was an exaggeration of fringe beliefs and concepts boiling inside American culture. In 2019, it's basically a documentary. The film depicts an America more xenophobic than ever before, where people on the right are freaking out about refugees from the Middle East. In response to this, borders are closed. Gun-totting rednecks and lunatics, fancying themselves patriots and true Americans, are ready to fight back against these immigrants and their own countrymen. Meanwhile, politicians say things that are totally opposed to their own beliefs and actions just to win points with their base. This obviously mirrors our modern world in eerie ways. Just do a Google search for the film's title and see how many hits you get from websites actually speculating about the possibility of a real second civil war. Though not even a satire as eerily accurate as “The Second Civil War” would've guessed that the President would be a failed casino owner/former game show host.

“The Second Civil War” might've been weirdly forward-thinking in many ways. However, it was way off in some ways. In the America of “The Second Civil War,” different parts of the country are dominated by non-white races. California is populated almost exclusively by non-English speaking Latinos. A sudden influx of Asian immigrants to Rhode Island has made the union's smallest state a prominently Chinese neighborhood. The Hindu population has exploded in Alabama. Former L.A. gang members are now senators. This is one prediction that clearly didn't come to pass. Moreover, it comes off as pretty clumsy. Depending on the light you read it in, the idea of different races self-segregating and dominating entire states plays into the worst fears of the radical right.

But let's not get hung up on the various ways “The Second Civil War” predict our current predicament or was way off the mark. This is a comedy, a satire. The film's biggest laughs tend to come from how the characters' incredibly petty desires contrast against their political decisions. Farley's isolationist politics has pushed America to the brink of war. This isn't what's really on his mind. Instead, he's utterly obsessed with Christina, a Latina news reporter he previously had an affair with. She has left him, partially do to his racist rhetoric, and he just can't get over it. Everything he does is directed by his libido and broken heart. The President, meanwhile, is unwilling to make any decisions. Instead, his actions are largely manipulated by lobbyiest who speak to him with meaninglessly broad historical references. Meanwhile, he decides to move his deadline ahead a few hours so as not to delay a soap opera broadcast. The woman running the immigration charity is constantly sore that other charities get more attention. This future where big decisions that affect all of society are influenced by the the pettiest of bullshit is also a scarily accurate reflection of our own time. And, maybe, it's always been true.

If the film's biggest laughs come from the contrast between public figure's decisions and their personal failings, its second biggest laughs come from its treatment of the media. In this future, the media is essentially torn between people who want to report the truth and businessmen who only care about ratings. (The rise of fake news and conspiracy theorists posing as journalists is another thing the filmmakers couldn't predict.) Producers argue about which massacres they should mention, so as not to alienate any profitable demographics. Others discuss the most commercial ways to sell the American public on the immigrant orphans. One of the film's funniest moments occurs when a co-anchor cracks up during a live broadcast, no longer being able to contain her emotions.

As funny as “The Second Civil War” can be, the film also lurches awkwardly towards other moods at times. There are pretty serious moments here. The angered Mexican population of Texas decide to burn the Alamo down. In retaliation, white nationalist blow up the Statue of Liberty, objecting to the message on her stone slate. These are pretty grave moments that exist alongside moments of wackier comedy. So is a scene of when the fighting breaks out on the Idaho border, where people are being gunned down and then Dick Miller cracks a one-liner. The overall flippant tone ends up jiving body with more serious attempts at political points, like a tender conversation with James Earl Jones' reporter and that gang-member-turned-senator.

The biggest problem “The Second Civil War” has is how damn shaggy it is. You have to wonder if writer Martyn Burke always intended this as a feature film. This is a ninety-three minute long television movie. It contains enough plot points and characters for an entire season of television. There's over a dozen named characters, each with their own histories, which we only get a peek at here. So much happens over the course of the script, so many events transpiring as the Idaho conflict veers towards actual bloodshed, that the viewer can get a little lost. You can easily see this being stretched out a little more, many of these story turns and plot twists being given more time to breath.

The Emmy “The Second Civil War” won was for Beau Bridges as Farley. Beau is, in fact, hilarious. When the cameras on him, he passionately spits speeches about putting America first. (He even delivers a line about restoring America to its former glory, that plays like a less catchy “Make America Great Again.”) In private, he's a neurotic mess that refuses to let go of a one night stand that probably hates him. Beau plays these two sides nicely, often getting laughs from his pathetic ramblings. Phil Hartman, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as the child-like President who is preoccupied with recreating the great presidents before him. An authority figure that is hopelessly over-his-head but unwilling to relent his power is an ideal part for the hilarious stylings of the late, great Hartman.

The stacked supporting cast features quite a few names. James Earl Jones, likely cast do to his iconic turn as the announcer of CNN, appears as the most principled of the network's journalists. Few performers project gravitas the way Jones does and he certainly roots the film's more serious themes, even if they don't entirely work. James Coburn has a very funny role as the main lobbyist pulling the President's strings. Coburn brings a musical quality to his dialogue, often making certain phrases hilarious just from the way he says them. Dan Hedaya is also funny as the put upon head of the news network, always pushing for bigger ratings. Elizabeth Pena gets the most out of scenes that have her reacting to Bridge's ridiculousness.

There's few corners of the film that aren't filled with some recognizable face or another. Ron Perlman shows up as one of the more outspoken producers in the news network, whose left-wing politics frequently see him butting heads with his more conservative co-workers. Dennis Leary shows up as a field reporter, doing his typical Leary schtick – swearing a lot and acting outraged – to varying degrees of success. Dante brings along plenty of his house players too. There's Robert Picardo as the network's technology expert. Here's Dick Miller as the cameraman dropped into the soon-to-be war zone. How about Rance Howard as one of the more clueless would-be minute men? Or Roger Corman as the calculating money man on the network? Kevin McCarthy and Belinda Balaski are somewhere in there too.

I don't think “The Second Civil War” totally works. Time has rendered its satire fact, making it more depressing to watch now than back in 1997. The film's script is overstuffed and not all of its ideas land. Yet it's such an ambitious movie, especially for a television production. (The film's scope was rewarded in some overseas markets, where it played theatrically.) This is a film with some really big ideas, making biting and perceptive points about American life. Obviously, it was really ahead of the curve on a lot of these issues as well. Some have hailed it as Dante's overlooked masterpiece, which is a statement I'm tempted to agree with even if I don't like the movie anywhere near that much. [Grade: B]

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