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Sunday, November 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Nancy character consumes 'Reagans' TV movie

By David Postman
Seattle Times chief political reporter

JAN THIJS / AP
James Brolin plays President Ronald Reagan in Showtime's TV movie "The Reagans," which was pulled off CBS' lineup under pressure.
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It is perhaps unfair to judge "The Reagans," the TV movie that airs on Showtime tonight, on historical accuracy. It's television, after all.

Much of the controversy leading up to CBS shunting the show off to its cable sister with the lower standards seemed to me exaggerated on both sides. A docudrama should by now be an oxymoronic warning light that would let even the casual viewer know that all before them is not true.

But "The Reagans" fails by the standards set by the show's producers and creative team.

Even before the criticism of made-up dialogue and selective memory (the writer's, not Reagan's) the show was touted as a love story between Ronald and Nancy Reagan. That story line, director Robert Ackerman told reporters last week, would leave viewers "with positive feelings about both of them and their relationship, and that's the heart of the movie."

There's little heart in the movie, though.

Nancy is portrayed by Judy Davis as cold and manipulative and having more pity than love for Reagan as played by James Brolin. He comes off as kindhearted but doddering. (Think President Forrest Gump.) And that's just in the first 30 seconds.

After that opening scene that foreshadows the darkest days of the Iran-contra scandal, the movie flashes back to the day Reagan met his future second wife, actress Nancy Davis. Even there, Nancy is portrayed as scheming and underhanded as she persuades an intermediary to arrange a date for her with Reagan, then a fading movie star.

Nancy Reagan is shown popping pills, shaking her daughter violently, turning a cold shoulder to Ronald Reagan's two children from his first marriage, and plotting with businessmen and political handlers about how best to advance Reagan's political career.

It is much more the Nancy Reagan Story than "The Reagans."

In case the point is missed, Reagan tells his wife after a rare disagreement, "It's up to you Nancy Pants, you're running the show."

Television review


"The Reagans," premiering at 8 tonight on Showtime.

Not alone, though. From the start there are scrums of guys in suits whispering, casting glances and rolling their eyes as they plot how to turn Reagan from an avuncular movie and TV star into a crusading, conservative politician. When Nancy tells an adviser that Reagan won't run for governor of California because "he likes his life the way it is," the man asks her, "Yeah, but do you?"

The show is worth watching for the camp value of Davis' Nancy in full Mommie Dearest mode, as well as some appropriately slimy performances by the cadre of manipulators who aid her. Brolin plays Reagan too much like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch to ever find him believable.

The show fails even to portray the time span of Reagan's rise. The 1960s particularly come off as broadly drawn with students looking cartoonish, though that's probably how Reagan himself saw them.

CBS dumped the program after complaints from Reagan family members and supporters that it was biased and inaccurate. One of the most controversial lines was dropped in a final editing.

Originally, Reagan was to say a line about the AIDS epidemic the screenwriter said she invented: "They that live in sin shall die in sin."

In the program, Reagan instead says nothing at all when Nancy — in her one caring moment — urges him to do something about the epidemic.

Reagan is reported to have said something similar to what the writer crafted, saying, "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

This is where worrying too much about mixing a bit of fiction in historical entertainment is tricky. That quote came from a Reagan biography by Edmund Morris, a "biography" in which the prominent historian created a character based on himself who was inserted into Reagan's life story.

If that happens in the history books, who should worry that a TV program takes some liberties?

That said, it seems a shame that so much time could be spent convincing viewers of Nancy's inherent evilness when discussion of what happened to the economy under Reagan, as one example, was relegated to a note on the screen before the closing credits.

There are only hints in "The Reagans" that Ronald Reagan had political convictions. After an early speech that touched on politics, someone asked Reagan who wrote it for him.

"The words are mine. So are the convictions," Reagan says. And as he struggles with a decision to switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, he says, "The Democrats changed, not me."

The lone time the president is shown balking at the first lady's bullying, you want to cheer for him and hope it is the program's Rocky moment that'll find him asserting himself. But mostly, Reagan is seen as malleable and affable.

Reagan comes to the forefront of the program really only toward the end when the script hints that the first signs of the Alzheimer's disease that now plagues him were showing up.

In the end, it matters little whether the details are accurate. "The Reagans" gives short shrift to accomplishments and dwells on the negatives, primarily the travails of the dysfunctional first family — right down to their footwear. At Reagan's inaugural, his children are desperate for a drink and there's some question if Patty is high. Nancy stays in character, though, criticizing how they all look and lecturing Patty that in the White House, "We will not wear clogs."

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com


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