The Dystopian ’90s Comedy That’s Disturbingly Relevant 20 Years Later
A divisive refugee crisis. Tensions between state and federal government. Racial conflicts pitting the U.S. public against each other. Citizen militias armed to the teeth. Crumbling infrastructure. A money-grubbing media scrambling for the latest sensationalist story.
And, oh yeah, the President is Phil Hartman. Any of this ringing any bells?
Let me back up a second. I hadn’t even heard of a little star-studded HBO flick called The Second Civil War until a stray post-election Google search led me to it. The more I read about it, the more I had the feeling that this might be worth a re-look, or, in my case, a look in the first place. How did it stack up in a world where political satire almost feels redundant? Turns out, in 2017 this Joe Dante film plays less like a comedy than a depressing recitation of issues we’re all painfully aware of, as well as some of our worst fears for the future.
The movie’s premise gives a lot to condense but I’ll do my best. Basically, The Second Civil War takes place in an unnamed year not far from now, where the News Net channel is hard at work covering an unfolding international dilemma. After India apparently nukes Islamabad in Pakistan, something the movie kind of forgets about after mentioning it, an amnesty organization arranges to fly a group of orphaned children to safety in Idaho.
Unfortunately, the Great Potato State is governed by the populist Jim Farley, played by Beau Bridges. Farley feels like the closest thing this movie has to a Trump figure, especially in the way he panders to extremist conservatives, and his campaign slogan, “America: As It Should Be,” sounds creepily familiar. In a bold move, the Idaho governor decides to close his state’s borders, ostensibly for political reasons but secretly because he can’t get over his affair with reporter Elizabeth Peña. Governor Farley is said to have once been fairly liberal but caved in to hard-right voters to win an election and is now stuck playing a card he’s not all that enthused about, another detail that seems disturbingly close to current events, depending on what you believe.
Meanwhile, Idaho’s power play draws attention from the White House, where President Phil Hartman has to decide whether or not to take official action, or at least pretend like he’s taking action to secure the next election. As the story jumps around the country, from Boise to New York City to Texas, we get scenes of Dan Hedaya and his strikingly exposed chest hair yelling at people while James Earl Jones, perhaps playing an alternate universe version of himself, frowns sadly and delivers on-the-nose narration. Although, to be fair, if you’re gonna have someone narrate, who better than Jones?
I do think that, despite the woeful attempts at racial humor (and there’s a lot of it), the movie is seriously trying to pose questions about America’s place in the world. There are unabashed “wacky moments,” and then sequences that feel more like an actual attempt to imagine what a Second Civil War in the ’90s would be like rather than make any jokes.
The best and most relevant satire here is mostly aimed at the hypocrisy of the media. The news refuses to cover any stories that would upset its sponsors but has no problem showing clips of African genocide because “there are no Rwandan advertisers.” Similarly, whenever a story involving race arises, the network struggles to find a reporter who doesn’t belong to the group of question, so as not to clash. And part of the reason the entire refugee situation happens in the first place is because Hedaya wants the plane to land during prime time. The head of the organization refuses to comply until Hedaya promises her that the group will be “bigger than Save the Children.”
The most memorable running gag has the White House competing with a highly anticipated episode of All My Children for ratings. No surprise that viewers are more concerned with their stories than current events, and the officials know it (one advisor asks, “Would it be possible that, for the sake of the country, Erica not run off with the gardener for a few days?”). Think about the CNN ads that made Clinton/Trump debates look like the WWE and this bit seems far too real.
In fact, so much of the events here weirdly echo issues we’re grappling with right now. These days, it feels like Idaho is just about the only state where someone hasn’t proposed seceding, perhaps because “Idahexit” isn’t going to be a hashtag anytime soon. The shots of armed white citizens in fatigues complaining about “foreigners taking our jobs” and signing up to “take back America” may have felt heightened in 1997 but are downright terrifying in a whole new way now.
Big TV’s lust for ratings has long been grist for the satire mill and that certainly hasn’t changed, either. The network studio scenes also serve as a kind of stand-in for the audience. Later in the movie, the U.S. Army starts mutinying, leading Hedaya to try and restore order by claiming the media is “inside, not outside” and should get back to work. The response, “it’s all outside now,” seems a lot like the current rhetoric about staying neutral as the world goes kablooey. Another scene has a news anchor breaking down as Americans take arms against their countrymen, swearing on the air and calling out a colleague for trying to cut to another story, even slamming his head repeatedly into his desk. As she puts it, “there is no other news” when the states fight against each other. Should reporters pretend they aren’t horrified or outraged in the name of objectivity? Do certain events fall outside political bias? Does a reporter voicing his or her opinion render the news “fake”? Whatever your answers, these questions aren’t going away.
Strangest of all is the abrupt tone switch in the closing scenes of the movie, which get surprisingly violent as characters are killed off in the Idaho carnage. In fact, the final moments onscreen don’t resolve anything at all. Governor Farley rescinds his position and prepares to step down, but a dumb mistake leaves Hartman “in Lincoln mode” because changing his mind would be too much trouble, so the conflict must go on. Before it’s over, we get a bloody war montage with sentimental strings and crying onlookers and even the sight of the burning Statue of Liberty, destroyed by an anti-immigrant group. Only a voiceover during the end credits assures us that order eventually returned, and that the whole fracas still lost out to All My Children. A disaster for everyone involved except maybe Susan Lucci.
The main thing I got from all this is a question we’re all depressingly used to by now: Can the project known as the United States ever overcome its inherent problems, or are we doomed to eventual dissolution and conflict? Jones’ narration may be cheesy but he also delivers the film’s moral when he describes how his character met his wife. They were both protestors fighting for civil rights, and despite their different backgrounds, their shared belief in equality was all that mattered.
Am I saying that Joe Dante predicted the 2016 election? Even if he did, it would be beside the point. I’m not even really saying you need to go out of your way to seek this movie out, since the ultimate message is debatable. What’s more evident is that the key things we’re worried about in this country aren’t new. Let’s just hope the jokes get refreshed every once and a while. We’re going to need ’em.