Writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh went to great lengths to document the facts of the events of March 30, 1981, for the Showtime original movie “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” wading through public records, contradictory eyewitness accounts and archival news footage. Still, some viewers have only to see Oliver Stone’s name attached to the project as executive producer to write it off as revisionist history or a biased account of a Republican story.
Showtime, in a preemptive strike against skeptics, will air the pic sandwiched between two documentaries, “Bulletproof: Reagan After Hinckley” and “At Reagan’s Side.” Both feature extensive interviews with Reagan associates Casper Weinberger, James Baker, Michael Deaver, Richard Allen and Larry Speakes, among others.
However, Nowrasteh’s movie works fine on its own as an engrossing, fly-on-the-wall account of the chaos that ensued after the attempt on the president’s life. The historical record already has been altered to reflect the actual events of that day, despite what was presented to the public at the time. Nowrasteh crafts the facts into a clever mix of satire and tragedy, exploring not only the assassination attempt on Reagan, but the career assignation of then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
Richard Crenna stars as Reagan, a man who seems indifferent to the small details, including a national security briefing on the possible invasion of Poland by the Soviets. Haig (Richard Dreyfuss), on the other hand, appears rabidly interested in power and politics, much to the dismay of his compatriots.
When Reagan is attacked a mere 70 days into his presidency by a mentally disturbed John Hinckley (Christian Lloyd), it initially appears the president is winded but unscathed. However, Special Agent Cage (Beau Starr) defies direct orders and takes Reagan to George Washington University Hospital, where the president begins to cough up blood.
While the press is deliberately misinformed and Vice President George Bush is stuck in Texas, D.C. turns into a media circus. In an effort to convey stability, Haig takes over crisis control at the White House.
In a now-infamous moment in history, Haig misstates the Constitutional succession and declares to the press that he is in control. But there’s little control, considering that it appears the Russians are about to deploy missiles aimed at the U.S., the phones in the White House are out of order and no one knows who has the U.S. nuclear weapons code.
An equal-opportunity offender, the movie paints an unflattering portrait of just about every top-level Reagan crony while serving as retribution of sorts for Haig. At the very least, the pic puts his mistakes in context.
None of the actors bears a tremendous resemblance to their real-life counterparts, except Holland Taylor as Nancy Reagan. Crenna captures some Reaganisms but has relatively little screen time.
The movie belongs to Dreyfuss, who not only conveys a thirst for powe, but conjures empathy for a man who would indeed fall on his sword for the good of his country.
While Nowrasteh’s script makes several direct points, most notably that Cage saved Reagan’s life and that the president displayed tremendous grace under pressure, it’s not all reverent.
Pic capitalizes on the more absurd aspects of day, including a scene where Nancy is running next to the chief executive’s stretcher and yelling, “I brought your jelly beans, darling.” At another point in the film, everyone in the command center hushes for what appears to be a major news announcement, only to learn that the Academy Awards ceremony for that night has been postponed.
Director of photography Mike McMurray goes to great pains to create an air of authenticity, including the muted colors and original camera angles of the now-famous news footage. John Trivers and Elizabeth Myers provide suitably understated music. Paula Fleet has re-created Nancy’s trademark hairstyle perfectly.