Skip to main content

Since when does a soap opera control the future of the country?

The Second Civil War
(1997)

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 67 ½ hours (from 72) in order not to clash with an 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, Wiliam 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.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I am you, and you are me, and we are here. I am the dreamer. You are the dream.

Communion (1989)
(SPOILERS) Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story was published in 1987, at which point the author (who would also pen Communion’s screenplay) had seen two of his novels adapted for the cinema (Wolfen and The Hunger), so he could hardly claim ignorance of the way Hollywood – or filmmaking generally – worked. So why then, did he entrust the translation of a highly personal work, an admission of/ confrontation with hidden demons/ experiences, to the auteur who unleashed Howling II and The Marsupials: Howling III upon an undeserving world? The answer seems to be that Strieber already knew director Philippe Mora, and the latter was genuinely interested in the authors’ uncanny encounters. Which is well and good and honourable, but the film entirely fails to deliver the stuff of cinematic legend. Except maybe in a negative sense.

Strieber professes dismay at the results, citing improvised scenes and additional themes, and Walken’s rendition of Whitley Strieber, protagonist…

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

He did it. He shut down the Earth.

Escape from L.A. (1996)
(SPOILERS) It seems it was Kurt Russell’s enthusiasm for his most iconic character (no, not Captain Ron) that got Escape from L.A. made. That makes sense, because there’s precious little evidence here that John Carpenter gave two shits. This really was his point of no return, I think. His last great chance to show his mettle. But lent a decent-sized budget (equivalent to five times that of Escape from New York) he squandered it, delivering an inert TV movie that further rubs salt in the wound by operating as a virtual remake of the original. Just absent any of the wit, atmosphere, pace and inspiration.