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HBO’s ‘Civil War’ Takes On TV News

Give television your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free. Better yet, give it more dark zingers like “The Second Civil War,” HBO’s new movie that envisions melting-pot America becoming a domestic “Dr. Strangelove,” with TV news sifting through the ashes.

“The Second Civil War” mingles broad humor with political and social commentary in ways rare for television, delivering a very funny satire of ethnicity, special-interest groups and immigration conflicts now raging in the United States.

Not everything here succeeds. The purpose, beyond ridicule for its own sake, is at times unclear, and the aim scattershot. Drawing a line in the sand and not backing down, however, “The Second Civil War” drops an especially lethal payload on TV news and its inclination to madly trivialize and marginalize in the name of ratings.

“I don’t want better work,” Mel Burgess (Dan Hedaya), executive producer at CNN-like NewsNet, snaps at idealistic veteran reporter Jim Kalla (James Earl Jones). “I need grab-'em-by-the-throat news. Haven’t you noticed? Ethics and taste are passe! History! This is not the ‘90s anymore.”

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Actually, Martyn Burke’s teleplay is very much of the ‘90s, even though set in the near future. It’s the most biting script for a TV movie since Larry Gelbart crafted “Barbarians at the Gate” for HBO in 1993. Like that film, this one creates edgy, smart comedy, on this occasion from media banality and growing angst over state and national immigration policies.

Although not nearly as lofty, “The Second Civil War” does bear a likeness to “Dr. Strangelove.” It too is charged with inevitability. And its domestic doomsday advances methodically to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” the Civil War tune that serenaded Slim Pickens on his final patriotic ride in Stanley Kubrick’s genius 1964 black comedy.

“The Second Civil War” affirms HBO’s boldness in exposing viewers to provocative original movies available nowhere else on TV. This one emerges in a dysfunctional United States of splintered demographics, where the Los Angeles mayor addresses the city in Spanish, Rhode Island is largely Chinese, and Sioux Indians, the Nation of Islam, Crips, Bloods, Irish, Latinos, Sikhs and other groups seek to control the borders of the areas where they live.

Burke has these volatile points converging at a time when familiar institutions appear to be rotting from cynicism and self-interest and the U.S. melting pot is seething perilously. So much so that Idaho Gov. Farley (Beau Bridges)--who opposes letting “the rest of the world flood into America” and destroy “our way of life"--detonates a national crisis by sealing his state’s borders to block the arrival of a planeload of refugee children who have been orphaned by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. The move is in keeping with the anti-immigration campaign that recently got him reelected.

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It turns out, though, that the married Farley’s mind is much less on his looming confrontation with the federal government (a play on President Eisenhower using federal troops to forcibly integrate Arkansas schools in 1958) than on his fading affair with NewsNet reporter Christina Fernandez (Elizabeth Pen~a).

Nonetheless, his border strategy brings him chest to chest with the White House, where the nation’s bumbling, pliant president (Phil Hartman) is urged by his whispery public relations guru (James Coburn), to “look like you’re doing something strong but . . . don’t necessarily do it.” Instead, why not avoid the clash entirely by sending the young refugees to another state?

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Meanwhile, NewsNet is all over this story, with Burgess smelling a “20 share,” pushing hard for the orphans to arrive at JFK airport “in the middle of morning prime time” and titling his network’s crisis coverage “The Second Civil War.”

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An omnipotent TV having its way with a transfixed society is something that filmmaker Barry Levinson, the executive producer for “The Second Civil War,” has explored in other films. His HBO movie advances that theme from a different angle, having maximum camera exposure preoccupy nearly everyone, from the agency worker escorting the homeless orphans to the White House, which issues a deadline for Farley reopening the border that it hopes won’t conflict with the popular daytime soap opera “All My Children.” No sense competing with Susan Lucci.

Director Joe Dante speeds the story along while pausing in spots to linger on the cast’s good work, especially that of Bridges, Pen~a, Hedaya and Hartman, whose mastery of the droll is a perfect fit for this president.

Although going mostly for big moments, “The Second Civil War” also wedges in some nice smaller touches, including a TV correspondent wearing a trademark bush jacket in the field and an upscale right-wing militia household displaying a glass bowl filled with grenades instead of wax fruit.

Despite its thunderbolts of humor, the movie aims a frown at the deafening media bombast that one observer here describes as a “wall of noise.” An ever-impenetrable one. As the only consistently rational voice at NewsNet, former ABC News hand Kalla is the one who seems hopelessly out of step in this gleaming high-tech carnival of newscasting--as unreal and unfathomable as a hologram, as obsolete as a dinosaur from another millennium. Which, of course, is the grim, depressing point.

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* “The Second Civil War” can be seen at 9 p.m. Saturday and again at 8 p.m. Tuesday on HBO.


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