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

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

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…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.