Skip to comments.Hatchet Job? Reagan Movie Is Run of the Mill (The Official New York Times Review!)
Posted on 11/30/2003 2:16:26 AM PST by Timesink
here is no reason Showtime's version of "The Reagans" could not have been broadcast on CBS earlier this month.
Tonight's made-for-television movie incited conservatives to threaten a boycott, which led the network to cancel it. Consigned to Showtime, a premium cable channel owned by CBS's parent company, Viacom, "The Reagans" turns out to be neither a liberal screed on Reaganomics nor a character attack on former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy.
It is a movie. More precisely, it is a made-for-television movie that squeezes real life characters and historical moments into a convenient dramatic arc: a love story lived out against a backdrop of the cold war, California politics and Washington intrigue. "The Reagans" is reasonably accurate, at times engrossing, at other times silly and sometimes even dull. It is not a thoughtful look at a critical moment in American history. It is a domestic drama about a loving couple beset by Hollywood agents, Republican backers, scheming advisers and, most of all, their angry, needy children.
Anyone eagerly anticipating or dreading a hatchet job on the 40th president is bound to feel confounded. James Brolin's portrayal of Ronald Reagan is uncannily convincing and respectful. Judy Davis as Mrs. Reagan verges on campy caricature, but even at her most imperious, the first lady never stops being a protective, loving wife. Moments after the 1981 inauguration, the film has her laying down the Nancy Doctrine. "We will not wear clogs," she instructs her rebellious daughter, Patti, in clipped "Mommie Dearest" tones. "We represent our country."
But it is the film's visual style that is most likely to offend the keepers of the Gipper's flame: shot mostly in darkly lit interiors and small, enclosed spaces like hospital rooms, elevators and the presidential bedroom, the film denies Mr. Reagan the Mount Rushmore-John Ford grandeur that his image-makers worked so hard to project. This is not "Morning in America." It is Late Afternoon in Washington, D.C.
The film opens in 1987 with a hurt, bewildered Mr. Reagan discussing the possibility of impeachment over the Iran-Contra affair with his adviser Michael Deaver, as Mrs. Reagan hovers over him.
Then it flashes back to 1949 in Hollywood, when Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, is asked to take to dinner an actress, Nancy Davis, who fears she could be blacklisted because her name was mistakenly included on a list of Communist sympathizers. They fall in love. (That is the only mention of Mr. Reagan's role in the McCarthy era; in this movie, the only Red menace is Nancy Reagan's wardrobe.)
From the moment Mr. Reagan begins working as a General Electric spokesman in the early 1950's to his last days in the Oval Office, he is portrayed as a man of sincere, even stubborn conviction, who shifts a lot of responsibility and most of the dirty work to others, particularly the wife he calls "Mommy" and "Nancy Pants." It is an adoring Mrs. Reagan and a slightly more sinister cabal of Republican tycoons who persuade him to change parties and then stage-manage his transition to politics from acting.
While machinations swirl in meetings around him, the president is often safely tucked into bed or behind Oval Office doors.
Mrs. Reagan, whose Adolfo suits seem to turn redder as her power swells, provides dramatic and comic relief. She roams the White House at will, like a panther in three-inch heels, stalking her prey to protect her mate. She tells America's youth to "just say no," but she wants everyone around her to just say yes. "I can't serve a state dinner with these," she tells a White House steward showing her the White House china. "We might as well use paper plates."
The recreation of the 1981 assassination attempt is scary and effective. But no scene is more frightening than the moment when a red-sleeved arm shoots across the screen to stop an elevator from closing behind a fleeing Donald T. Regan, then chief of staff. As movies from "Dressed to Kill" to "Silence of the Lambs" have taught, don't stay in that elevator, Don.
Even this astrologer-driven Mrs. Reagan turns warm and likable when alone with her husband, in bed or on the ranch. But she has other human moments. When she discovers that her hairdresser died of AIDS, she sets up a meeting with HIV-infected men, then implores her husband to do something. "If you don't talk about it," she warns, "nobody will talk about it." Mr. Reagan, reading a briefing book, pays no heed.
Reacting to news articles about the script, conservatives complained that it unfairly portrayed the former president as indifferent to the AIDS crisis that erupted during his watch. The film's producers did not restore what they had cut for CBS: the president's highly contested and fictional line, "Those who live in sin shall die in sin." In this scaled-down version, Mr. Reagan appears silently unresponsive to the problem; even his most affectionate biographers concede that Mr. Reagan did not grasp the scale of the epidemic.
Politics and pathology meet in the Iran-Contra investigation, when it was revealed that Oliver L. North and other administration aides had traded arms for hostages in Iran and diverted illicit money to the Contras in Nicaragua. Under questioning, the president's "I don't remembers" begin as politically expedient memory lapses and morph on screen into the tragic blank spaces of early Alzheimer's.
When it canceled "The Reagans," CBS said it was not responding to pressure, but making a "moral call." But the three-hour version on Showtime does little to support the network's claim. "The Reagans" may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is hardly an act of treason.
shot mostly in darkly lit interiors and small, enclosed spaces like hospital rooms, elevators and the presidential bedroomSaving money on the sets?
Cheap is as cheap does.
Hey, Ms. Dowd Lite, we've read Ann Coulter's book. We know how your paper worked 24/7 covering for Soviet spies, back then.
Perhaps noonan's "When Character Was King," will serve as basis for another try. Buy the book for yourself, a relative or friend -- it's worth every penny.
Don't bother watching it. You will only be annoyed at your own waste of time.
The 'puter is not quite OK, but it doesn't crash like it used to. I tried to install Windows 2000 yesterday, but I need to talk to the IT guy from work -- I think I'm doing something wrong.
Oh no, you doing something wrong? That's not possible.
I hope nobody reads your comment -- they're going to start getting all sorts of wrong ideas about me in their heads!
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