The Best Movie About a Modern Civil War is a ‘90s Phil Hartman Comedy

The Best Movie About a Modern Civil War is a ‘90s Phil Hartman Comedy

This weekend saw the release of Civil War, the much-anticipated new movie set in an alternate universe in which the United States is grappling with extreme political polarization (thank goodness it’s only a movie!), mainly due to the actions of a brutal authoritarian president played by Nick Offerman. If the plan was to further distance himself from Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson, mission accomplished, Nick.

It’s not just a clever title, the movie is literally about another American Civil War. But the story is intentionally vague, offering no explanations for how the war began exactly — or how Texas and California teamed up to become the Oscar Madison and Felix Unger of this brutal conflict. 

But Civil War isn’t the first movie to tackle the subject of a modern American Civil War. In fact, one of the very best films to explore this premise was a comedy, HBO’s underrated 1997 TV movie The Second Civil War.

Unlike Civil War, which avoids topical references to make a broader ideological point, The Second Civil War, directed by Joe Dante of Gremlins fame, offers up a number of bleak political specifics that serve to motivate the story’s central conflict. And they’re (sadly) as relevant today as ever. 

The movie begins with the Governor of Idaho (played by Beau Bridges) closing his state’s borders to keep out an influx of Pakistani refugees, many of whom are orphans. “We are being swamped. We are destroying our own way of life,” he argues. This xenophobic message is soon embraced by right-wing militias as the situation intensifies. 

Meanwhile the President of the United States (brilliantly played by Saturday Night Live legend Phil Hartman) moves to oppose this affront to the Constitution — not because it’s the right thing to do, but because he wants to score points with voters in the next election. His right-hand man isn’t even an official member of his administration, he’s a lobbyist (James Coburn) who dispenses helpful advice like “dead supporters are the worst.” 

The movie effortlessly combines grim seriousness with laser-focused satire that feels all too plausible. When the president suggests giving Idaho 72 hours to reconsider their actions, he’s talked into giving them “67½ hours” so as not to overlap with “Susan Lucci’s final episode” of All My Children, which might cause viewers to go “apeshit.”

Civil War focuses entirely on a handful of journalists, and The Second Civil War similarly devotes a lot of its attention to the media, specifically the employees of a 24-hour news channel (including Dennis Leary and the voice of CNN himself, James Earl Jones) illustrating how their cynical machinations shape the events of the war.

Interestingly, while Civil War’s protagonists are all war correspondents, The Second Civil War was written by Canadian filmmaker Martyn Burke, an actual former war correspondent who began his journalism career by covering the Vietnam War. On the comedy side of things, Burke co-wrote Top Secret!, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s follow-up to Airplane! He reportedly helped to structure the trio’s “chaotic” story. “If it weren't for Martyn, we’d still be sitting in that room,” Jerry Zucker said at the time.

Impressively, Dante’s direction somehow strikes a tone that allows the events of The Second Civil War to feel both wildly absurd, but also genuinely believable, darkly funny, but occasionally bone-chilling — like the scene in which the Statue of Liberty is destroyed.

Eleven years before Cloverfield, by the way. 

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter (if it still exists by the time you’re reading this). 


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