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By Christopher Varney | October 19, 2000

Originally produced for HBO, Joe Dante’s satirical movie “The Second Civil War” examines what happens when network media, guns, and extreme right-wing politics are tossed into a blender set on “Frappe”.
In a speculative tale not unlike 1998’s “Wag The Dog,” “The Second Civil War” gives us an America trapped in a melting pot gone mad. The plot’s central strife orbits around a group of Pakistani orphans bound for a new life in Idaho — a state helmed by isolationist governor Jim Farley (Beau Bridges) who defiantly closes Idaho’s borders to repel all immigrants, thumbing his nose at The White House to stop him.
However, the President himself (played by the late Phil Hartman) is as clueless as anyone, torn between his advisors and various “modes,” before commanding Idaho to open its borders to the orphans or face military action. But unfortunately, Governor Farley is as zany and divided a leader. Though drumming his anti-immigrant stance before the media, he’s obsessed with his part-time mistress: a lovely Mexican reporter (Elizabeth Pena) who is carrying his child. And the guv’s chief assistant, played by Kevin Dunn (“Dave”) with his usual dry wit, desperately works to balance his boss’ self-absorbed love life and the worsening crisis at Idaho’s borders.
Meanwhile, on the other coast, obvious CNN-clone “Newsnet” works to cover — and manage — the entire crisis. A story now spun to its viewers as “The Second Civil War” by a crack news producer played by Dan Heyeda, in light of Idaho later threatening to secede should Washington not back off, along with other states sympathetic to Farley’s cause.
On a technical level, the switching of these narratives — from Idaho to the White House to Newsnet’s trenches — is done expertly by Joe Dante, who seamlessly flips from hand-held cameras to typical dolly and crane shots. It’s an energy that “War’s” screenwriter Martyn Burke, whose scattered credits include last year’s cable-spin on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” nicely captures in the mania of Dante’s America. Yet if “The Second Civil War” contains a prime weakness, it’s in being swept away by this frantic pace, its climax wildly shifting characters and settings as matters around the nation turn to violence. Some films, assisted by skilled editors, can make this breakneck narrative action work. And sometimes, as in the case of “The Fifth Element,” it can even thrive.
However,”War’s” sheer volume — of cast, characters and situations — is too overloaded, too top-heavy to come together. This, despite many fine acting performances by James Earl Jones, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, Joanna Cassidy and James Coburn as a D.C. media lobbyist (“I’m an information facilitator”) plus a spray of other Dante alum (Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Kevin McCarthy). But again, it’s all excess content piled up around a troubling climax. A sensory overload amdist a sharp, intelligent satire on media and politics that, in “The Second Civil War,” at last proves too ambitious for its own good.

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