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The Second

The Second Civil War" is a charmingly warped political satire that clicks with some regularity until, with about 20 minutes to go, it mysteriously forgets it's supposed to be a comedy and misguidedly turns into a clueless message movie. Perhaps inspired by some inner compulsion to make heavy-handed statements in a film that stars Phil Hartman as the president of the United States, scripter Martyn Burke crafts a wickedly intelligent, if over-the-top, teleplay that blends the right touches of irony and absurdity. Then, inexplicably, he decides that what the pic really needs is a body count. The effect is not unlike watching Schwarzenegger pick up an Uzi and start pumping lead into all the little tykes in "Kindergarten Cop." Take that, ya little hellions!

With:
Cast: Beau Bridges, Joanna Cassidy, Phil Hartman, Dan Hedaya, James Earl Jones, James Coburn, Elizabeth Pena, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, Kevin Dunn.

Instead of the second coming of “Dr. Strangelove” or “Network,” we get something resembling a collaboration between Michael Moore and Timothy McVeigh. And it’s too bad, because there is a lot to like about “Second Civil War,” not the least of which is a series of masterfully dry performances from its top-drawer comedic cast.

It’s the near future, and Gov. Farley of Idaho (great deadpan work from Beau Bridges) has ordered his state’s borders closed just as a planeload of orphans from the Pakistan-India nuclear war is seeking refuge. He is fed up with immigration policies that have turned America into a Third World nation.

This unfolding drama is milked for all its Nielsen melodrama by Mel Burgess (Dan Hedaya), an executive producer for the all-news NewsNet channel, who says things like “Thank God for arrogance, lust and greed, or we’d all be doing infomercials.” Soon enough, it becomes clear that everyone here has an agenda.

The president (superb work from Hartman) wants to look as decisive as Dwight D. Eisenhower, and sets a 72-hour deadline for Idaho to reopen its borders. Unfortunately, the three days will end smack in the middle of Susan Lucci’s final episode of “All My Children,” the one in which Erica runs off with the gardener.

Lobbyist Jack Buchan (James Coburn) wants to look good himself. Gubernatorial aide Jimmy Cannon (Kevin Dunn) is intent on keeping his boss out of trouble, while the guv is preoccupied with his affair with a Latina newswoman (Elizabeth Pena in a hilarious turn).

Denis Leary strikes gold as a gonzo producer, as do James Earl Jones as a dignified TV reporter, Ron Perlman as a hard-nosed editor and Joanna Cassidy as an anchorwoman who is rapidly losing her professional veneer.

Tensions mount and the president threatens to use “the orphan card” while massing National Guard troops on the Idaho border, setting the stage for a rip-roaring conclusion in which any pretense of seriousness takes a holiday. Instead, all hell breaks loose as director Joe Dante purposefully rolls out the shock-value scenario mandated in the script.

The parody, it turns out, has been a ruse to hook us so the film can drive home its points about media manipulation and the kind of divisiveness the militia movement could soon effect in America. But this is clearly the wrong movie for such grandstanding, and you sense that the actors know it.

Mac Ahlberg’s camera team does an effective job of capturing a country in chaos, and editor Marshall Harvey deftly intercuts elements showcasing the battles on the border and in the TV studio. Tech credits are all solid.

The Second

Sat. (15), 8-9:40 p.m., HBO

Production: Filmed in Sacramento and Los Angeles by Baltimore Pictures and HBO Pictures. Executive producers, Barry Levinson, Chip Diggins; producer, Guy Riedel; director, Joe Dante; writer, Martyn Burke;

Crew: camera, Mac Ahlberg; editor, Marshall Harvey; music, Hummie Mann; production designer, Joe Lucky; art director, Shepherd Frankel; costume designer, Dan Moore; casting, Mike Fenton, Allison Cowitt.

Cast: Cast: Beau Bridges, Joanna Cassidy, Phil Hartman, Dan Hedaya, James Earl Jones, James Coburn, Elizabeth Pena, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, Kevin Dunn.

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