As CBS learned the hard way, it’s impossible to divorce the political and creative components in analyzing “The Reagans” — an uneven and, yes, unflattering biography that the network tossed to Showtime in a game of corporate hot potato. Taking score ideologically, the project depicts Nancy Reagan as a dragon lady and the former president as an amiable, square-jawed dunce blessed with a gift for gab. Yet underneath that harsh glare lurks a humanizing touch, for it is also the story of a couple fiercely devoted to each other — albeit often at the expense of those around them.
Whatever CBS might say about fairness, then, benching the Gipper will always reek of political expediency in the face of criticism. My lingering suspicion is that while this so-so production is no worse artistically than many a tawdry TV biopic, CBS decided the quality didn’t justify going to bat for it once the GOP-launched elephant droppings began to hit the fan.
Undoubtedly, staunch Reagan loyalists would have assaulted anything that didn’t present the 40th president as worthy of a place on Mount Rushmore — something CBS should have recognized going in. Still, it’s only fair to note there’s very little here, however pointed, that hasn’t been leveled against the Reagans before — including the vitriol they endured during his presidency.
Like any made-for-TV historical saga spanning four decades, “The Reagans” makes brutal choices about what to throw away and keep. Beyond that, this is billed as a “dramatic interpretation of events based on public sources,” so no social studies teacher should be tempted to assign this to a class.
The script’s anti-Reagan sentiment is subtler but still evident in its omissions — determining how much time to spend on the fall of the Soviet Union, say, as opposed to the Iran-Contra scandal. Almost invariably, the artistic thumbs here (belonging to a trio of credited writers and director Robert Allan Ackerman) tip the scales against them.
What might be most troubling to Reagan supporters, however, is the overall portrait of Reagan as an actor-turned-politician who never loses his need for direction — a natural communicator with a hollow core behind the “Aw, shucks” charm. As such, he’s ripe for manipulation by everyone from his agent, Lew Wasserman, who uses him to finagle concessions out of the Screen Actors Guild, to Nancy, who arranges their first date through producer Mervin LeRoy in 1949.
Although some will criticize James Brolin’s portrayal as cartoonish, he has deftly captured the man’s public image while providing no hint of what resides behind those twinkling eyes. In that respect, he conveys the notion of Reagan as a genial but near-impenetrable vessel — not fully knowable even to Nancy (Judy Davis), who feels compelled to shield him from what she labels the “vipers” who surround them.
“It’s up to you, Nancy-pants. You’re running the show,” he’s prone to saying — using that cringe-worthy pet name five times, actually.
When not running roughshod over cabinet members, Nancy is equally harsh on Reagan’s direction-challenged kids Patti (Zoie Palmer) and Ron Jr. (Shad Hart, who for a while sports an unfortunate Prince Valiant haircut). Meanwhile, elder son Michael (Tom Barnett) almost pathetically hungers for fatherly validation that Reagan, by his very nature, can’t provide.
As Nancy tartly informs an aide at one point, “He’s always been incapable of saying ‘no.’ I’m gonna say it for him.”
Nancy is unlikely to win any “mother of the year” votes, and her protectiveness toward her husband only grows after he’s elected president. That concern is heightened in the latter part of his term, as Reagan begins to betray the signs of strain and forgetfulness that might represent the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Director Ackerman and Davis previously collaborated on another showy biopic vehicle, ABC’s Emmy-winning “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.” Through the Nancy character’s gentler moments, they manage to soften a performance that occasionally threatens to lurch across the boundaries of camp into “Mommie Dearest” territory: When she starts huffing about “no blue jeans in the White House” it seems wire hangers can’t be far behind.
Some of these scenes hurtling through Reagan’s presidency are the production’s most compelling, but those inclined to take political exception will also find them the most objectionable.
While Nancy’s astrologer offers input about White House scheduling, Reagan keeps muttering things like, “God wants me to end the Cold War.” Even his rejoinder about AIDS being a biblical punishment — excised after conservatives howled over its inclusion in a leaked copy of the script — now makes him appear simply aloof and uninterested, as Nancy begs him to address the issue and he ignores her.
Not that “The Reagans” needs any additional controversy, but it’s also worth noting this quintessentially American tale was shot in Canada. For the most part, it’s a handsome effort, down to the gradual aging of the principals and the re-enactment of the assassination attempt by John Hinckley.
For all there is to dislike and debate about “The Reagans,” it remains mind-boggling that a network would pull such a project days before its planned airdate. That it finally gets its day in court on Showtime, the pay channel that picked up Adrian Lyne’s remake of “Lolita” after studios balked, is by any measure the kind of victory likely to embolden those who would stifle such material.
In that sense, CBS took a page from the movie Reagan, telling its critics, “You’re running the show.”