Reagan movie raises issues of truth, credibility


After spending more than a month caught in a crossfire of cultural warfare that led to a highly controversial cancellation by CBS, The Reagans will finally air tonight at 8 on Showtime. The four-hour, two-night miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan's years in the White House has been re-edited to a three-hour, one-night movie that will run without commercials on a cable channel that reaches 13 million homes, instead of the 108 million reached by CBS, a major broadcast network.

Despite outstanding performances by James Brolin and Judy Davis as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the film (made available for preview only yesterday) feels anti-climactic compared with the red-hot rhetoric about the cancellation that preceded it. But it is still an ideologically supercharged document whose sins illuminate larger issues of media deception, credibility and the ways quasi-historical films flying under the banner of docudrama can distort our notion of who we are as a nation.

In this case, it comes down to what Ronald Reagan did or didn't say about homosexuals and AIDS. The truth of that historical matter has been sacrificed in the name of drama in The Reagans, and, in the long run, that is an issue of even greater cultural import than whether CBS caved in to political pressure.

The cancellation furor was still raging last week as Judy Davis insisted that in the end what matters most about The Reagans is the "level of censorship" practiced by CBS in reaction to a campaign by conservative groups. She said she sees CBS' pulling The Reagans from its November sweeps schedule as part of a "general attack on free speech."

"I guess you all should be concerned that a relatively small group of people could exercise such control over a major network and get a show like this off the air," she said during a telephone news conference last week. "It's pretty astonishing, especially for a film they had not seen."

Meanwhile, Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS, defended his decision to pull The Reagans from his November lineup and send it to Showtime, a corporate cousin in the Viacom family, on grounds of taste and a respect for history.

He said that the film failed to present a "balanced portrayal" of the former president and first lady and that his decision had nothing to do with protests and the threat of an advertiser boycott.

Comparing The Reagans to Oliver Stone's JFK, a much-maligned feature film about the life and death of John F. Kennedy, Moonves said, "I was promised a love story, but the film [the producers] delivered was a political film with a definite point of view. It would be against our standards to air it."

The producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, contradicted Moonves' version of events, saying that he and his management team were involved every step of the way, approving script changes, seeing dailies (film footage on a day-by-day basis) and approving a rough cut of the final film, all before a version of the script was leaked to the media and the protests started.

"To say that we delivered something other than what was promised is just not true," Zadan said.

It is important to know how highly improbable it would be for the head of a network to spend $10 million to $15 million on a miniseries, then not follow its production closely, especially when it was to be the centerpiece of his November sweeps programming, as The Reagans clearly was.

No one in the industry who isn't in management at CBS seems to be buying Moonves' story of being forced to cancel because he was blindsided by the filmmakers.

But, when it comes to the larger historical issues involved in the making of The Reagans, no one on either side of the barricades is without sin. This story is perhaps best told by what will not be in the final version of The Reagans tonight on Showtime: a line of dialogue that has Reagan saying, "He who lives in sin shall die in sin."

The nine words are presented as Reagan's reaction to the growing AIDS epidemic during his presidency. They go a long, long way in depicting him as cold, uncaring and, possibly, homophobic, particularly because they are said in response to Nancy's begging the president to speak out on the epidemic.

The problem with the words is that Reagan never said them. The filmmakers acknowledged last week that the quote was invented.

"This is a dramatization. It isn't a documentary," director Robert Allan Ackerman said in defending the invention. "Since none of us actually knew Ronald Reagan, as one is forced to do when making this kind of movie [docudrama], we invented a character based on all of the research we had."

Ackerman said the invention of the AIDS dialogue was based on a statement attributed to Reagan by historian Edmund Morris in his book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, published in 2000. "The quote [attributed to Reagan] from Morris is that AIDS is a plague brought down from the Lord because illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments," Ackerman said.

The problem with using Dutch as a source for such a highly charged quote is that Morris' book has problems with credibility. Morris wrote the biography as a "historical novel" with invented characters, invented dialogue and claims of knowing what was going on inside Reagan's mind at key moments dating back to the former president's Illinois boyhood.

The filmmakers said they consider it unfair that conservative watchdog groups such as Brent Bozell's Media Research Center focused much of their campaigns on the quote, which appeared in a script leaked to the media.

"Overnight, it became this big swirling controversy based on innuendo, since no one had actually seen the film. References to AIDS account for only about eight minutes of a three-hour film," producer Craig Zadan said.

Nevertheless, the line about living and dying in sin was taken out of the film that Showtime will air.

"We decided, because there has been such a furor over the line, that it is the one political give-in that we would agree to. And we took the line out," said Robert Greenblatt, president of Showtime.

"I think the filmmakers would still prefer it to be in the movie, but the scene is not gone. The scene where Nancy begs him to come out and speak about the AIDS issue is still very much in the film. He just does not say the line. I think the scene is still as powerful and, in fact, more powerful in that he doesn't say the line."

Greenblatt is right about the power of the scene, and its primary force is to damn Reagan. The moment comes after a series of scenes in which Nancy finds out that her gay hair stylist has died of AIDS and then goes to a hospice to hear testimony from other young men dying of the disease.

"Please, Mrs. Reagan," one young man begs, "Talk to the president. AIDS is the bubonic plague unless you are willing to do something about it, unless you are willing to speak out." Alone in their bedroom late at night, a tearful Nancy says to Reagan, "You are the president, if you don't talk about it no one will, and all those young people, those boys will die. And the blame will be on our heads. Please."

Reagan, who is reading a book, remains impassive to his wife's entreaty as the scene ends.

The context of what comes before and after that highly emotional moment near the end of the film matters. Preceding it are several instances - particularly as they relate to his son Ronnie - in which Reagan seems abnormally threatened by homosexuality. At the end of the film, a postscript appears on the screen saying that 150,000 persons died of AIDS while Reagan was in the White House.

Granted it is only one series of brushstrokes in the larger portrait of Reagan offered by the film, but it clearly paints him as homophobic without the kinds of historical evidence necessary to make such a claim. For all the other questionable aspects of the film -- whether it's Nancy Reagan played as a pill-popping, backstage schemer, or Reagan characterized as already suffering from dementia and citing conversations with God as the reasons for certain actions he undertook during his second term - the invented scenes showing a homophobic Reagan are the film's greatest sins because of their potential to distort not only the national memory of who Reagan was, but also who we were in the 1980s.

Greenblatt said he is proud of the way the bedroom scene succeeded even with the contested line about dying in sin omitted.

"I think we have lost none of the truth or the dramatic effect of that scene by taking out the line," he said.

Truth seems like a peculiar word to use in reference to a scene that depicts as a homophobe a president who was known to have homosexual friends. But that's the devil's bargain that docudrama tries to strike between truth and drama.

And almost always in the ratings-driven world of prime-time entertainment television, it is truth that gets lost in the shuffle, even when that truth is part of the national past that belongs to all of us.

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