Reagan movie raises issues of truth, credibility

SUN JOURNAL

Film: CBS' cancellation of the miniseries caused a furious debate on censorship and the integrity of historical dramatizations.

November 30, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

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.

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