If admirers of former President Reagan didn’t like a television movie about him after reading leaked snippets of a script, their opinion isn’t likely to change after seeing the final product. “The Reagans,” which premiered on Showtime on Nov. 30, depicts the former president as amiable but often confused, controlled to a large extent by his wife, Nancy, and presiding over a dysfunctional family.
The movie is being aired on Showtime after CBS refused to show it earlier this month, following a campaign by supporters of the Reagans.
The Reagans’ faults are familiar to those who followed his presidency. What’s striking is how they dominate this film compared to Reagan’s successes; the Iran-Contra affair is given considerably more time than the Cold War defeat of the Soviet Union, and the economic boom of the 1980s is barely touched upon.
The film opens with a befuddled Ronald and tearful Nancy Reagan dealing with the fallout of Iran-Contra, in which the government traded arms to Iran for hostages. It then switches to 1949, when film actor Ronald Reagan meets actress Nancy Davis.
She’s depicted as controlling from the start, scheming to get a first date with Reagan and compelling him to propose by threatening to move to New York.
In one scene, Nancy angrily shakes their daughter, Patti, after she spoiled a scene they were filming for a commercial. She refuses at one point to let Reagan’s son, Michael, talk to him. The future president accedes to his wife’s request to put their daughter in boarding school.
“It’s up to you, Nancy pants,” says Reagan’s character, portrayed by James Brolin. “You’re running the show.”
When some prominent Republicans have trouble persuading Reagan to run for California governor, one says to another: “You’ve been talking to the wrong Reagan.”
In “The Reagans,” the buildup of his political career is seen almost entirely as a function of the hopes and aspirations of others, rather than Reagan himself. The savviest political move it shows Reagan making is underhanded: a speech at the 1976 GOP convention that’s more about promoting himself than the nominee, President Ford.
The depiction of Reagan’s presidency opens with a shot of him in bed, two hours before he was due to be inaugurated. Aide Michael Deaver says it’s time to get up, and Reagan answers, “Do I have to?”
The movie shows several backstage rants by Nancy Reagan, although her instincts often prove correct: She sees the faults of Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Chief of Staff Donald Regan before her husband.
Reagan’s efforts to stare down the Soviets during the Cold War is shown as a religious conviction, strengthened following the 1981 attempt on his life.
“I was thinking about the boy who shot me,” Brolin says to Judy Davis, who portrays Nancy Reagan. “He tried to kill me, but God let me live. He spared me for a reason. He spared me because he wants me to lead our country out of the Cold War.”
Perhaps the biggest irony is that the film’s most controversial scene during the past month proves to be Nancy Reagan’s finest moment, displaying a compassion not seen to that point.
After being rocked by her hairdresser’s death due to AIDS, she meets with AIDS sufferers and is depicted, in a bedtime conversation with her husband, imploring him to do more to help people with the disease.
“If you don’t talk about it, nobody will talk about it,” she says. “All these children, these young boys, are going to die and the blame will be on our heads, Ronnie.”
He’s silent. “Ronnie, say something,” she says.
He never does.
In the film’s original script, Reagan was depicted as judgmental, saying, “they that live in sin shall die in sin.” That line was cut after Reagan’s supporters said there was no evidence he had said any such thing.
The scene is immediately followed by one of Nancy Reagan’s character leading a “Just Say No” anti-drug rally at the White House.
“Why didn’t I ever think about that?” Reagan’s daughter, Patti, says while taking a drag on a marijuana cigarette after watching the scene on television.
The film’s producers deny any political agenda, and CBS executives deny they succumbed to political pressure in dumping the film on Showtime (which is seen in some 13 million homes, compared to 108 million that have CBS). CBS President Leslie Moonves said this week that he believed the film was unbalanced and not the love story he ordered.
There are foreshadowings of the former president’s Alzheimer’s disease as early as 1985, according to the movie, which ends with a scene of Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing in the White House on the final day of his presidency.
“What kind of dance is this? I can’t remember,” Reagan says.
“You lead and I’ll follow,” his wife answers.