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The Ridiculous Criticisms of "The Reagans"

The criticisms that forced CBS to abandon “The Reagans” miniseries range from the disingenuous to the ridiculous. Complaining about manufactured quotations in a television “biopic” makes as much sense as complaining about gas mileage when test-driving an SUV. To insist – as the Republican National Chairman did – that CBS run a disclaimer every 10 minutes that the film is fictional, assumes that the American people are too foolish to distinguish between James Brolin the actor cast to play Ronald Reagan and “The Gipper” himself. And to accuse an entire production of liberal bias because the main star is married to Barbra Streisand would be considered sexist if the star in question were female rather than male. Instead, it is just silly, imputing extraordinary power to the wrong diva. In this tale, the woman who emerges as being powerful enough to intimidate a network and shape the script is Nancy Reagan not Ms. Streisand.

I had a peripheral role in the miniseries. I was the historian-on-call when the film shot in Montreal. The script had already been written. The actors had already been cast. I was the verisimilitude-police, trying to ward off historical howlers, especially during the two days I was on location, when Reagan was rushed to the hospital after being shot, and when he was shot. In true Hollywood style, the staged events occurred in reverse order, separated by three weeks.

Having long railed against the Oliver-Stonization of history, I had my qualms about sleeping with the enemy, as it were. I resent the way Stone and others blur fact and fiction, especially by injecting seemingly documentary style footage in JFK, among others. I also resent the Stone Sidestep, wherein he and others pronounce authoritatively on historical events, yet yell “it’s only a movie” when questioned. I agreed to help because I knew the production would proceed anyway, and I thought it was better to help them make as accurate a film as possible. Besides, I had just finished a manuscript about Ronald Reagan, to be published next fall, and was curious about how they would film the Reagans’ love story.

In fairness, the actors, the director, and all the production people worked diligently to follow the historical record as closely as possible, spending much time poring over photos, videotapes, and books to create that verisimilitude so essential to such biopics. Earnestness not animus was the tone on the set. I was floored by the way James Brolin transformed into Ronald Reagan, replete with broad shoulders, warm, crinkly eyes, and that telltale Reagan pompadour of uncertain hair color, while Judy Davis effectively captured Nancy Reagan’s fascinating mix of charm, vulnerability, brittleness and style. Both Brolin and Judy Davis had read widely and were trying to evoke the complex characters of two famous Americans without descending into caricature.

The scriptwriter inevitably compressed, interpreted, and took liberties – as do all storytellers. Writing history has been compared to nailing jello to the wall – it is elusive, shapeless. We all are selective. After reading the script I realized that there are three levels of truth in story telling. There is the essential truth, what historians call the interpretation, what Hollywood types call the spin. There are the nitty gritty truths, the little historical details “The Reagans” crew tried to capture, the color of Reagan’s suit the day he was shot (blue), the weather (rainy), the sequence of who was hit first (a bit unclear but we assumed that the bullets arced from the president then further away from the target). However, in order to do what historians strive to do, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, there is also the narrative truth. That is where the miniseries folks took some liberties, because that is what miniseries folks do. Inevitably, certain scenes were conflated, certain lines of dialogue were improvised.

The Reaganites seem most upset about the broader truth, the spin the miniseries might put on the Reagans’ story, but they have focused on the narrative inaccuracies. They have objected to video Reagan saying something the real Reagan never said regarding AIDS: “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” This complaint is doubly ironic. A mountain of evidence in the Ronald Reagan Library shows that the president – like so many others including many gay leaders – responded slowly to the AIDS crisis, and in his case it was because he abhorred homosexuality. If he did not speak so pithily, his actions – and inactions – certainly spoke more powerfully.

Moreover, Reagan brought to the White House a healthy appreciation of the storyteller’s need to improvise. Ronald Reagan was a preacher. Infuriating his critics and inspiring the masses, he spoke in parables. In 1982, Reagan would tell Chicago schoolchildren that the British used to hang criminals for possessing guns. Reporters complained to Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes that what the president said was not true. Echoing his boss’s approach, Speakes replied: “Well, it’s a good story, though. It made the point, didn’t it?”

The most blatant “bias” in the script was the typical bias in all Hollywood projects – toward telling as entertaining and human a story as possible. It remains to be seen how the script will be realized on videotape. Until then, it is better to postpone judgment about the miniseries. For those who wish to continue the important and vigorous debate about Ronald Reagan’s legacy, we should do what Mr. Brolin, Ms. Davis, and the others on “The Reagans” set did – turn off the TV and read from the growing catalogue of actual biographies and history books about the Reagans, their times, and their legacy.