A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, no MPAA rating, 180 mins.

James Brolin (Ronald Reagan) Judy Davis (Nancy Reagan)

Directed by Robert Allen Ackerman / Written by Jane Marchwood, Tom Rickman, and Elizabeth Egloff

According to polls conducted a year ago, the late Ronald Reagan has surpassed Abraham Lincoln as one of the most popular presidents in US history.  Considering his questionable past and history in politics in the White House, I felt like I should demand a recount. 

This was the same President that sold weapons to a known terrorist country in the exchange of US hostages that would erupt into the infamous Iran/Contra affair.  He also occupied a Presidency that provided billions in aid and weapons to Iraq to assist them in their battles with Iran…not even gonna dignify this problem any further.   

Question:  How could such a man occupy so favourable of a position in so many people's minds? 

The new mini-series, THE REAGANS, attempts to answer that question.  The series gained much notoriety in 2003 for being pulled off the air for being too controversial.  Viacom originally scheduled the series to run on CBS, but moved it to Showtime after protests by the Republican Party and a threatened boycott over its portrayal of the Reagan family.  The film has finally arrived on a special edition DVD. 

What’s truly shocking and largely surprising is what a moving and sympathetic portrayal of the former President it really is.  As a matter of fact, what makes THE REAGANS such a strong biopic is the fact that it does not place a lot of emphasis on the large controversies, but rather on the smaller and more intimate details of Reagan’s life.  The film is not so much a scathing hatchet job as it is a sensitive and sincere portrayal of a man and family that was clearly not perfect. 

The film clocks in at nearly three hours and it's quite an expeditious narrative indeed, covering the family from Reagan’s days as a Hollywood actor and President of the Screen Actor’s Guild, to Governor of California and his eventual election as President in 1980.  It's quite amazing how dense the narrative is and the sheer number of characters that occupy it (all members of the Reagan family are dealt with appropriately and have real emotional weight given to them).  Full credit should be given to director Robert Allan Ackerman. He does an expert job of handling the dense subject matter and makes it into something cohesive, uniform, and always watchable. 

THE REAGANS is a stirring watch right from the beginning and works on the level of being a tight drama about two people who really, truly love each other.  The film begins to chronicle Nancy and Ronald’s days as actors in Tinseltown. Ronald at this time is portrayed as a straight arrow - likeable, charming, and fiercely American and religious.  I like how the film has time to develop the smaller aspects of his life, like how during World War II he made movies in Culver City for the Army, and later had trouble finding work, finally winding up as GE's spokesman for Death Valley Days on Television (a job that was especially difficult to swallow, considering his disdain of the television format).  It is here where the film’s great irony resides, as if there was ever a President that used TV and his charisma and easy-going orator skills to win the favor of the public, it was Reagan. 

Moreover, we witness (amazingly) how Ronald’s contempt for the IRS grows as his income skyrockets.  As his resentment of the Federal Government increases, we also see how the shadowy rich figures in the background seduce him into becoming their tax-cutting puppet.  This, of course, leads him right to the Governorship of California, but even Reagan himself, at the time, had his doubts.  “Run for Governor?” Reagan asks his aids, “But I never even played one before.” 

Of course, his Governorship was not all wine and roses.  He’s hated by the students on campus across the state, and in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he mentally breaks down with a priest when faced with the painful realization that a decision he’s made has caused a man on death row to be executed.    Yes, he does not stay the execution, but he is nevertheless torn by it, and pleads with the minister for some sort of confirmation that he did the right thing.  The scene is crucial because it establishes Reagan as an intense man of faith that would later materialize in many of his decisions in the White House (after he was shot by John Hinkley, he politely tells Nancy, “He was just part of God’s plan, and God wanted me alive to serve my term.”) 

The film is political to a large degree, but it’s easy to forget about the intense human drama that occupies it.  The real heart of the film is not Reagan’s Presidency or Governorship, but his relationship to his wife and family.   This is the cornerstone of the film, and it does not so much show the Reagans as a clean family corrupted by a life in politics as a family that had problems to begin with.  Make no mistake about it, Nancy and Ronald are devoted to one another, and their love is real.  It has been said that Nancy was the only person Ronald would confide in on any intimate level.  The film is very open with presenting their relationship and sincere in showing the couple for what they probably were: two people that loved each other and stood by each other’s side…no matter what the cause, even in moments of intense crisis. 

THE REAGANS is also refreshing in how it fleshes out the rest of the family and gives them perspective on their mother and father.  Nancy and Ronald started off as regular parents, but it was with their political ambitions that lead to the near estrangement of several family members.  Especially sad and poignant is the story of daughter Patty, played well by Zoe Palmer as a child who feels misunderstood and largely forgotten by her parents.  She is the emotional crutch that often holds together the other children.  What’s revealing is how much she both loves her dad and hates what he does. 

THE REAGANS is nearly told through the eyes of Nancy, as is portrayed in an Emmy nominated performance by Judy Davis.  If the film was heavy-handed with one person it most certainly was with Nancy.  But she is not really an easy target as she is a rather complex woman.  She oftentimes is portrayed as a spoiled, egotistical, and remarkably selfish and uncaring woman (especially towards her children).  She also is seen as a woman that is sometimes paralyzed with procrastination and neurotically nitpicks over the smallest of details.  She is also a fiercely independent woman with determination and drive and a keen sense of where she wants her husband to go.  I never, however, got the sense that she did not do anything for Ronal that was not out of love for him.  She could be a cast iron bitch a lot of the time, but she was the poster girl for standing by her man.  Davies handles this complex portrayal seamlessly and effortlessly and maintains that uneasy level of intensity and sensitivity throughout the film. 

Kudos also has to be given to Josh Brolin for his great performance as Ronald.  He captures his mannerisms so effortlessly, but he is not doing a one-dimensional caricature.  Brolin shows Reagan as a largely decent and moral man.  Reagan is further presented as a person that believed in right and wrong, and he believed that if he made a mistake he should own up to it, (kind of like the good guys in the movies from his era).  Reagan was not gifted at being extroverted with the people he worked with, but he was clear and adamant about what he believed in. He felt like he wanted to do the right things for the country and the world. 

On the flipside, the man had an obtuse mind, which was permeated by overly simplistic ideals, coupled with his black and white sense of right and wrong.  This of course led him to make broad and silly conclusions that lacked in any serious exploration of the problem.   He was a man that surrounded himself with the right people to make decisions for him, and he was often lead around by his often manipulative and domineering wife.  Yet, he’s really likeable, affable, and old fashioned (something that our modern pessimistic view of politicians sometimes fails to see) and has a casual sense of humor about him (“If you don’t mind, this administration would like to pee,” he tells an antagonistic advisor).  Brolin, like Davis, captures his essence so well and his Emmy Nomination is equally deserved. 

I guess I came out of THE REAGANS really not understanding what all the fuss was about.  The Republicans can make all the protests they want about the film, but it’s not the cinematic lynching that it has gained a reputation for.  What it’s really, at its core, is an engaging and taut drama that feels, overall, like an accurate portrayal of the Reagan family.  What I came out with is not hatred for the Reagans but an acknowledgement of the family as real people with real issues and problems. The controversy that the film elicited has no real merit.  It’s balanced, fair, and does not generalize.  The film’s only real shortcoming is that it could have been longer and gone even deeper.  Yet, the film is a great vehicle at showing us a deeply flawed President in a world that he felt was in need of fixing.  He was not a memorable President because he was a dirty politician.  As the film shows, he was a man that spoke with conviction and vigor and was sincere in his convictions.  He was old fashioned in his manners and had an “aw shucks” attitude about the world around him.  People listened and responded to him and, even after the impeachable fiasco of Iran Contra, they still liked the man.

Maybe that's why the man was so popular?

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