The Second Civil War & the Third Era of Political Movies

By Harry Browne

July 9, 1997

There was a time when all movies about government and politics presented a straight-forward, black-and-white view: the good liberals fought against the nasty, moneyed conservatives. Eventually, the good liberals won and government got bigger. You remember Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Jimmy Stewart and The State of the Union with Spencer Tracy.

Then in recent years we've had movies that portrayed politics more realistically — up to a point. The protagonist would become involved in politics for some reason, only to discover that politicians and bureaucrats weren't really idealistic and weren't doing anything actually to help people. Instead, government was a den of corruption and cynicism — with every politician looking out only for himself. But by the end of the movie, the star would get religion and heroically put through Congress a number of reforms — to clean up the environment, help poor children, raise taxes, or whatever. You might remember Dave with Kevin Kline and The Honorable Gentleman with Eddie Murphy.

Some of those movies were very pointed and entertaining until the hero decided to use the government to make everyone better.

As part of that second era, quite a few movies depicted secret government agencies run by conspirators who murder Americans without any qualms. In those movies, government was portrayed badly. But, again, someone usually came to the rescue — a person in government who really did want to do the right thing — and he usually won out in the end.

The New Era

Now Hollywood seems to be in a third era of political movies. In this era some movies present government with no redeeming values whatsoever. I'd seen and enjoyed several such movies before realizing that a new trend may have emerged. But it all came together in my mind when I saw an HBO original movie called The Second Civil War. This movie epitomizes the new era.

The movie is meant to be a comedy with serious overtones. Since humor is so subjective, you may or may not find the movie funny. I found it to be very much so — plus the story moves along so quickly that my mind never wandered.

The movie takes place in the "near future." The government of India drops a nuclear bomb on Pakistan — turning hundreds of thousands of children into orphans. A Save-the-Children-type organization goes to Pakistan to bring back a few thousand of them, planning to settle them in Idaho. But the Governor of Idaho (Beau Bridges) is a former liberal who won election by turning conservative and bashing immigrants. So he announces that he's closing the Idaho border to the rest of the country — to keep all new immigrants out.

The President of the U.S. (Phil Hartman) says he won't allow this. As the plot evolves, the two sides are headed for an armed conflict — with troops massing on both sides of the Idaho-Utah border.

New Characterizations

As you consider this storyline, think of the way Hollywood once would have milked the two leading roles — statesmen agonizing over life-and-death decisions, a second American Civil War looming, Americans against Americans, brother against brother, innocent people killed in the crossfire, and the like. Oh, the agony and burdens of responsibility that go with public service! You remember President Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe.

But not in this movie. The Governor's advisors try to get him to focus on the crisis, but he's too busy trying to reconcile with his mistress. At the other end of the country, Mr. President cares only about his image. His chief advisor (James Coburn) is a public relations expert who ranks above the President's military and economic advisors. As each response to the crisis is considered, the potential electoral votes are counted.

The President is about to order the Idaho Governor to open the border, invoking a 72-hour deadline. "I like the sound of a 72-hour deadline; it seems decisive," he says. But the advisors point out that this would conflict with Susan Lucci's farewell episode on the soap opera All My Children. So they change it to a 67½-hour deadline.

When the Sioux Indians get in the way of the two armies massed at the Idaho border, the President buys them off by granting them a casino license.


Immigration is a major factor in the story. When other states come to the aid of Idaho, the Chinese Governor of Rhode Island sends a battalion of crack Chinese troops. When the mayor of Los Angeles holds a press conference, he speaks in Spanish — and a national reporter seeking more information asks everyone at City Hall "Habla usted inglιs?"

At one point, the President decides that Dwight Eisenhower is the ideal role model for this kind of crisis. So he asks his six speech-writers for a statement he can attribute to Eisenhower. They confer to make up a suitable Eisenhower-sounding quote. Of course, none of them is American. There's a Mexican, Asian, Arab, Irishman, Canadian, and Russian. The movie also highlights an Alabama Congressman who's a Hindu with a southern accent.

In the story the most adamant opponents of immigration are the immigrants already here. Overall, there's a slight anti-immigration and anti-free-trade coloring to some of the scenes, but the overwhelming thrust of the movie is the trashing of government and politicians — all governments and all politicians. There isn't a single political hero in the movie.

How Wars Begin

At the climax, the Governor schedules a news conference. The President's chief advisor has informed him that a newsman said the Governor is about to announce secession. The President considers this a Constitutional crisis, cancels the 67½-hour ultimatum, and orders federal troops to storm the Idaho border immediately. The Second Civil War breaks out and people are slaughtered on all sides — including many of the Pakistani children.

The newsman who provided the leak is outraged and demands to know why the President would do such a thing. The advisor says the President couldn't tolerate secession. The newsman says, "I didn't say 'secession;' I said 'succession.' The Governor is resigning to marry his mistress and was about to announce his successor."

The carnage continues as the movie ends.

Dead Movie

The Second Civil War had a normal run on HBO during April and May of 1997. Apparently, HBO hasn't run it again since. Someone at HBO told me there were plans to release it as a home video, but I never saw it at Blockbuster Video.

As I said, today the bad guys in political movies are no longer just moneyed, selfish conservatives and corporate killers. Today, in some movies they are virtually all politicians — self-interested, conniving, insensitive politicians who are unconcerned about the damage they do. Examples of these kinds of movies include Canadian Bacon, Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, and — to a lesser extent — Children of the Revolution.

As Hollywood people have traditionally been strongly ideological, outspoken liberals, this is a good sign. If even some of them can see that government doesn't work, you can imagine how many Americans can.

Unfortunately, The Second Civil War seems dead and buried. It's a shame. I thought it was a very entertaining movie that made a libertarian point.

Back to Home Page