'The James Brady Story' is well-acted but misses the mark on gun control


Let it be said up front: Beau Bridges' performance is simply extraordinary in "Without Warning: The James Brady Story," the high-profile world premiere cable movie about the feisty press secretary shot in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. (The HBO film premieres at 9 p.m. tomorrow on the premium network.)

Joan Allen may even be better as Mr. Brady's wife, Sarah, whose crusade for gun control recently resulted in the House of Representatives' passage of the so-called "Brady Bill" that would require a waiting period for purchasers of handguns.

And even Bryan Clark, whom local viewers may recognize from a variety of Washington-Baltimore area television commercials, does a pretty good job as a vague and not particularly sincere Ronald Reagan.

Disappointingly, however, viewers will wait in vain for anything approaching the real-life passion of this nation's divisive gun control debate.

It is hard to figure. After all, this is a subject that elicits crackling debate from even the merest mention on radio talk shows. And in the true Brady story we have a gripping tale of a brain-wounded man nearly killed by a cheap handgun, yet whose loyalty to his president (a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association) comes in conflict with his wife's desire to crusade for gun control.

But this film plays much more like a well-done but routine medical tear-jerker. Its intimately personal focus never quite connects believably to the cardboard cut-out portrayal of events illustrating America's insane love affair with personal weaponry.

The story opens with Mr. Reagan's 1980 campaign and subsequent election, after which he names the beefy Mr. Brady as his press secretary. In that role, we see the familiar wisecracking tough manner in which Mr. Brady dealt zestfully with the Washington press corps.

The movie also suggests less than subtly that a key part of Mr. Brady's job was to cover up the fluffs and memory lapses of his boss.

Soon we also see a spacey John Hinckley Jr. (with Steven Flynn as the would-be assassin) easily buying a handgun from a clerk, who touts the gun for its stopping power.

The actual March 30, 1981, shooting at Washington's Hilton is a slow-motion re-creation, filmed earlier this year on the scene, rather than the actual footage we all watched so many times on the news.

Curiously, the news reports of the shooting as shown on TV sets in the film, including the erroneous report that Mr. Brady had died in the shooting, are also apparently re-creations rather than actual footage. The movie has Sarah Brady hearing that infamous error in her living room, after her son has called her by saying "they said Daddy's name on TV."

For some time from here on, the movie becomes a standard courageous-recovery story, with David Strathairn as the brain surgeon who attends the case.

Mr. Bridges is thoroughly believable, as Mr. Brady slowly regains a limited ability to communicate, but is frustrated by the reactions of President Reagan and other friends, and the limitations of his maimed body.

He bristles when Sarah makes a remark in the president's presence about how easily the would-be assassin had acquired a gun, and thus is introduced to the dramatic conflict that should have been the heart of the film.

Soon she is asked by somewhat shadowy gun-control advocates -- no organization or individuals are ever identified or given a chance to articulate their views -- but she repeatedly refuses, out of deference to her husband.

In the end, it is a questionably persuasive coming-to-terms by Mr. Brady himself that is the fulcrum leading to real news footage of both Bradys testifying before Congress on behalf of stricter gun control.

As a personal story of courage and triumph, "Without Warning" is success, and certainly worth watching. But as the weapon of meaningful change which it might have been, it seems curiously ineffective.

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