Skip to comments.Grumbling Trickles Down From Reagan Biopic
Posted on 10/20/2003 9:50:52 PM PDT by Nick Thimmesch
Grumbling Trickles Down From Reagan Biopic By JIM RUTENBERG
ASHINGTON, Oct. 20 When it comes to their entertainment shows, the major broadcast networks tend to shy away from political controversy, lest they offend viewers, sponsors or congressmen with sway over federal regulators.
Next month, however, CBS will buck that convention with "The Reagans," a two-part mini-series that steps squarely into the spirited and often partisan debate over President Ronald Reagan's legacy.
As snippets about the television movie circulate in Washington and Los Angeles, friends and relatives of the ailing Mr. Reagan are expressing growing concern that this deconstruction of his presidency is shot through a liberal lens, exaggerating his foibles and giving short shrift to his accomplishments.
That the part of Mr. Reagan is played by James Brolin, who is married to the conservative bête noire Barbra Streisand and who makes no secret of his own liberal politics, only intensifies their fears.
"I fully expect this mini-series will be largely unfavorable to my dad," Michael Reagan, a radio talk-show host who reaches two million people each week, wrote recently in a column posted on various Web sites. He added, "Hollywood has been hijacked by the liberal left."
Marlin Fitzwater, who was the White House press secretary for two of Mr. Reagan's eight years in office, asked rhetorically in an interview: "Does it show he had the longest and strongest recovery in postwar history? That the economy, stimulated by the tax cuts, was creating something like 200,000 jobs a month, for years?"
In many ways the film follows the standard television biopic formula, sensationalizing the more controversial moments of the subject's life. But given that the main subject is a Republican hero, one who is now suffering from Alzheimer's disease, the events chosen for depiction and those left out are sure to come under harsh scrutiny from Mr. Reagan's supporters, who are increasingly protective of his reputation and already suspicious of Hollywood.
"The Reagans," according to the final version of the script obtained by The New York Times, does give Mr. Reagan most of the credit for ending the cold war and paints him as an exceptionally gifted politician and a moral man who stuck to his beliefs, often against his advisers' urgings.
But there is no mention of the economic recovery or the creation of wealth during his administration, key accomplishments to his supporters. Nor does it show him delivering the nation from the malaise of the Jimmy Carter years, as his supporters say he did.
The details the producers do choose to stress like Mr. Reagan's moments of forgetfulness, his supposed opinions on AIDS and gays, his laissez-faire handling of his staff members often carry a disapproving tone.
Nancy Reagan, who is played by Judy Davis, does not get light treatment either. While the script portrays Mrs. Reagan as a loyal and protective wife, it also shows her as a control addict, who set the president's schedule based on her astrologer's advice and who had significant influence over White House personnel and policy decisions.
CBS officials and the filmmakers said the mini-series would ultimately be judged as fair when it is shown on Nov. 16 and 18. They said they were simply trying to tell a historically accurate story that included the good along with the ugly, all from respected biographies and other source material. "This was very important for me, to document everything and give a very fair point of view," said Leslie Moonves, the CBS chairman.
The film's producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan who have done a number of successful made-for-television movies including those about Judy Garland and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis said no major event was depicted without at least two confirming sources, though they said they took dramatic liberty in some spots. the film was approved by lawyers at CBS and the main production studio, Sony Pictures Television.
"It's not painted in black and white," Mr. Zadan said, "but in blacks, whites and grays, many variations of gray."
The plot begins tamely enough. A dashing Ronald Reagan, recently divorced from Jane Wyman and the president of the Screen Actor's Guild, is introduced to a young Nancy Davis by the director Mervyn LeRoy and quickly falls in love. There are a number of admiring scenes, including those showing Mr. Reagan rebuffing his advisers to push ahead with negotiations with the Soviets and others depicting him as a devoted husband. And the movie accepts his assertion that he knew nothing of the illegal diversion of funds to the contras fighting in Nicaragua.
"The Reagans" takes sides on plenty of issues and incidents that are vigorously contested by biographers, and some that are historically questionable. In one early scene Mr. Reagan's talent agent, Lew Wasserman, tells him that his anti-Communist activism is hurting his career. "People know you're an informer for the blacklist," Mr. Wasserman says. Mr. Reagan replies, "I've never called anybody a Commie who wasn't a Commie."
Mr. Reagan was long suspected of supplying names to the Hollywood blacklist but denied it. F.B.I. records show he cooperated with agents investigating communism in Hollywood, but historians disagree about whether his assistance was of any real significance.
The script also accuses Mr. Reagan not only of showing no interest in addressing the AIDS crisis, but of asserting that the patients of AIDS essentially deserved their disease. During a scene in which his wife pleads with him to help people battling AIDS, Mr. Reagan says resolutely, "They that live in sin shall die in sin" and refuses to discuss the issue further.
Lou Cannon, who has written several biographies about Mr. Reagan, said such a portrayal was unfair. "Reagan is not intolerant," he said. "He was a bit asleep at the switch, but that's not fair to have him say something that Patrick Buchanan would say."
Elizabeth Egloff, a playwright who wrote the final version of the script, acknowledged there was no evidence such a conversation took place. But, she said, "we know he ducked the issue over and over again, and we know she was the one who got him to deal with it." She added that other biographies noted that Mr. Reagan had trouble squaring homosexuality with the Bible. In "Dutch," Mr. Reagan's authorized biography, the author, Edmund Morris, writes that Mr. Reagan once said of AIDS, "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague," because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."
Another likely controversial moment in the television movie comes in a scene that implies strongly that President Reagan's inspiration for the Star Wars space-based system was a 1940 movie in which he starred, "Murder in the Air." Some experts have said that the film may have influenced Mr. Reagan's decision to sign off on the program. Others have dismissed such claims as overemphasized by liberals.
Mrs. Reagan, meanwhile, comes across in the script as her husband's protector, constantly fending off ambitious and amoral political operatives. But in depicting the control she exerted, not only over his schedule but over more substantive decisions, the television movie makes some controversial claims.
The final shooting script heavily implies that Mrs. Reagan, in agitating for the resignation of Alexander M. Haig Jr., President Reagan's first secretary of state, went so far as to write his resignation letter. But no account holds that Mrs. Reagan wrote such a letter. After a consultation in response to a reporter's question, the filmmakers decided last week to remove that scene from the film, saying they would have deleted it in any case.
Mrs. Reagan's associates said she was most likely to be upset about scenes in which she is shown keeping her children at arm's length and those in which she takes prescription pills, as detailed in "The Way I See It," the memoir of the Reagans' daughter, Patti Davis.
Mrs. Reagan had no comment for this article. John Barletta, a former Secret Service agent who served the Reagans and maintains contact with Mrs. Reagan, said he had spoken with her about the film. "She kind of said, `Well, hopefully it won't be that bad,' " he said.
He said he had his own concerns about the film because "when it comes to the Hollywood people, they're all very liberal against him."
Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron, acknowledge their liberal politics, as do the stars of the television movie, Mr. Brolin and Ms. Davis. But Mr. Meron, said: "This is not a vendetta, this is not revenge. It is about telling a good story in our honest sort of way. We all believe it's a story that should be told."
Nonetheless some involved in the making of "The Reagans" said in interviews that they were girding for a considerable outcry from some of Mr. Reagan's more die-hard supporters.
"With the climate that has been in America since Sept. 11, it appears, from the outside anyway, to not be quite as open a society as it used to be," Ms. Davis said during an interview at her hotel in Montreal. "By open, I mean as free in terms of a critical atmosphere, and that sort of ugly specter of patriotism."
She added, "If this film can help create a bit more questioning in the public about the direction America has been going in since the 1970's, I guess then I think it will be doing a service."
Mr. Brolin said he, too, hoped that the film would prompt Americans to be more suspect of their leaders. "We're in such a pickle right now in our nation," he said, "that maybe if learn something from this."
Mr. Morris, Mr. Reagan's biographer, said he had some misgivings about the mini-series, given the political leanings of the producers and actors.
"The provenance of the movie makes me suspect it will not be fair," he said. But he added that it could also work as a reality check on Mr. Reagan's record.
"The best thing one can say about a movie of this kind," he said, "is it does redress or counteract the sentimentalities that are being perpetrated all of the time in his name by his fanatical followers."
I'll take the ugly specter of patriotism over the ugly sphincter of liberalism any time.
This about sums up what I expect from this movie... in their "honest sort of way." That should make everyone feel real confident of what they see in this movie!
The smug condescension of this article's title encapsulates why so many detest the New York Times.
Someone should tell them that Clinton's economy was a perfect congruence of the fruition of Reaganomics (they dropped their condescending nickname when they saw it worked), the Peace Dividend resulting from the End of the Cold War (which Democrats opposed as "destabilizing"), and the technology-driven preparation for Millennium 2000.
Of course, with active and ill-timed help of Alan Greenspan (and more specifically, partisan Clinton appointee Larry Meyers who got a 50 b.p. rise in interest rates two months after the stock markets began to plunge), Clinton was able to burst his own economic bubble by simultaneously attacking the Biotech (with Tony Blair), Telecom (prevented mergers in the dying long-lines business) and High Tech (i.e., Microsoft). The score: Up-to-Down Turnarounds -- Bushes 0, Clintons 1, and Down-to-Up Turnarounds -- Bushes 2, Clintons 0.
The Big Question is: Did Clinton, one of the most partisan presidents ever intend to wreck the stock market, the economy and three million jobs in his last year to create a positive legacy (The Clinton Economy) since there were so few accomplishments other than signing into law significant portions of Newt Gingrich's Contract For America?
Credit, however, should be given the Clintons for ushering in a whole new era of Republican successes, and only the Clintons could have triangulated Democrats into accepting passage of welfare reform. On the other hand, that's really part of the extended Reagan Legacy which CBS will ignore.
Gee, how overwhelmingly charitable it was of them to do that.
This is like doing a biopic about Abraham Lincoln without mentioning the Civil War.
And yet this controversial quote about AIDS is included despite NO EVIDENCE that Ronald Reagan actually said it.
Spoken as only "THE GIPPER" would speak for himself...which is why I have ceased getting exercised by these Liberal/Leftist attacks since they continue to shoot themselves in the foot.
It's a JOY for me to watch them self destruct.
"But then I got a call from Babs and thought, screw it," Leslie said.
Who will watch it? The libs will avoid it because they despise Reagan. The Right will avoid it because they know not to trust Babs' pet monkey, Holywood, etc. The non-aligned aren't political junkies, and would have little interest. It jumped the shark before filming began.
You mean the one in which Noah defeated Goliath by using his Coat of Many Colors in order to free Moses from the Romans?
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