A thankfully fictional United States, lorded over by director Joe Dante and led by a satirical script with horrific notions by Martyn Burke, has not only remained faithful to its melting pot image, but has melted along with the pot. In Rhode Island, Chinese immigrants have basically made the state their territory and a cargo shipload of Albanians are turned away from a port in South Carolina because the state is just too darn overcrowded. The problems are just beginning in the most unexpected of states, Idaho, where Governor Jim Farley (Beau Bridges) refuses to take in orphans from Pakistan, victimized by India going nuclear on their country. Farley even goes so far in closing the borders of Idaho to everyone in the country, putting the White House into full action under a President (Phil Hartman), prone to not making his own name in American politics, but rather trying to imitate those who came before him, such as Eisenhower, with the help of a high-powered lobbyist, Jack Buchan (James Coburn), brought in as a consultant in high-tension situations.
The real gist of the story is seen through NewsNet, a CNN clone, covering all angles at once, led by Mel Burgess (Dan Hedaya) who asks his staff sporadically, “What have you done for me lately?” James Earl Jones, as one of the reporters, is the narrator of the film, reflecting back upon a time when news came out slowly and was absorbed in the same manner, but in a faster-paced society, that kind of luxury disappeared with black-and-white television sets. Fittingly, Jones is the rock-solid voice of reason in this insane time, which gives him great weight by the end in which the shrewd observations of the script lead into a call for a kind of understanding among all types of people, no matter their race, religion, or color.
The rest of the cast, including Kevin Dunn (as Farley’s aide), Denis Leary, Elizabeth Peña, and Ron Perlman all have their say through the script, as characters on all sides of this sudden battlefield that could very well lead into the second Civil War. Jimmy Cannon (Dunn) tries his damndest to assure Farley that NewsNet reporter Christina Fernandez (Peña) will come back to him and spends more time trying to convince her to go back to Farley than he does in monitoring the soon-to-be explosive situation. It doesn’t matter that Farley has a wife; he wants Christina, and what they had all that time ago. Perlman is one of the main guys at the network, giving commands when necessary, slowly becoming frustrated over what’s going on, and how it can be covered. Leary is, of course, Leary, covering the potential war near the Idaho border and he’s even allowed to spout his allegiance towards John Wayne, whom he believes would have gotten us out of Vietnam within a week. Despite the cast he has gathered, Joe Dante isn’t in the mood for slapstick, opting for humor through dialogue and certain situations that seem outlandish, but are even funnier and a bit unsettling because they’re true. Hartman’s president fails to realize that he could try being President at least once, opting instead to lean on Buchan. Buchan being depended on by the President is fairly obvious. With his wide-eyed look, wondering what to do, it’s obvious that the President would depend on Buchan. Just listen to the way Coburn pronounces “foibles”! He allows that word to enter and dismisses it quicker than that, showing himself as a man of business. The country needs to be helped, no matter how much harm comes to it. Coburn as President and Hartman as Buchan is mildly amusing in imagination, but it’s easy to see why Dante avoided it. Too obvious.
Everyone’s always out for something in this, right to the head of the organization transporting the Pakistani orphans. She initially refuses outright to have the plane kept in the air (which is also transporting a NewsNet reporter who looks like he’d feel better simply opening the door in flight and getting off the plane that way), but agrees once she learns that if the plane lands at JFK during morning prime time hours, the ratings would shoot upward for NewsNet and she could end up fielding more calls and earning more money than the Save the Children organization. Later, when the entire country is close enough to being plunged into its new Hell, she berates a NewsNet reporter for using a wide-angle lens, making it look like there are less orphans. She wants just as much exposure as any attention-lusting opportunist would crave. Another priceless scene involves the President giving Idaho a 72-hour deadline to re-open their borders and stop their madness, but at the behest of Buchan, having to lower it to 67 and ½ hours so as not to tick off any “All My Children” fans, presumably all women, because of Susan Lucci’s final episode. Buchan reminds the President how they lost the women’s vote the last time they pre-empted “All My Children”. However, even one of the highest levels of government likes that show and seem to be into it more in that one scene than actually running the country.
Through all that’s good and bad through our fictional States during “The Second Civil War”, Dante achieves a balance that covers everyone. The news is fleeting and so is politics and that’s exactly what’s portrayed here. While HBO doesn’t make these types of films anymore (look at “The Late Shift” as well, which is a little more well-organized than this, but still has its share of common traits, including a ferocious performance by Kathy Bates in “Shift”. However, her performance in that could only be compared to the ones in this movie, only if the plethora of actors decided to combine their performances), it’s an enjoyable part of the channel’s history.