Dubious debate

Variety editorial

A correction was made to this article at 11:48 p.m.

“The Reagans” was a work of fiction. It had its strong points and its weak. It was not the product of the CBS News division.

When CBS chairman Leslie Moonves made his unfortunate decision to dispatch it to Showtime, the three-hour piece was to be showcased as a love story.

Why then did Matt Blank decide it was necessary to deliver an intro that emerged as a sort of apologia? And why then did Showtime feel compelled to create an oddly discomfiting debate the following evening?

Despite spanning a 40-year period ending in 1989, “The Reagans” inadvertently told us much about the lack of civil political discourse circa 2003. Even the panel Showtime sponsored to illuminate the film at times risked turning into a verbal food fight, with Frank Sesno cast more in the role of referee than moderator.

The principal creatives involved in the TV movie were noticeably missing from the panel, and were wise to be. Instead, we were presented with professional Reaganphiles or Reagan historians carping about factoids, along with former Reagan staffer Linda Chavez claiming repeatedly that her former boss was really a very intelligent man.

The only moment of sanity belonged to Marvin Kalb from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who reminded viewers that the show represented itself as neither news nor history.

Indeed, the whole enterprise seemed further to blur the distinction between fact and fiction — one that the networks already have fudged by compelling news shows to promote fictional movies involving presumably newsworthy subjects.

As dramaturgy, “The Reagans” wasn’t all that bad. Indeed, the performances were downright distinguished. Too bad the show simply couldn’t have been allowed to run on CBS without all the accompanying histrionics.

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