Remaking Ronald Reagan

Posted: Nov 06, 2003 12:00 AM

There they go again.  Liberals, that is.  The left is fuming over CBS’s decision to pull “The Reagans” miniseries, crying censorship and the like.

  Of course it’s not censorship when a commercial network decides to pull a product that might lose money and certainly would have tarnished its reputation.  But that hasn’t stopped the carping.

  USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco—who thankfully did not use the “c” word—called CBS “cowardly” for its “shameful” decision to “rob viewers of a chance to decide the movie’s merits for themselves.”  But that’s the thing: the “merits” were often fictitious, even by the filmmakers’ own admissions.

  Notice the language used in a typical defense of “The Reagans”: Drexel University dean Jonathan Estrin whining, “The right to free expression of opinion is damaged by this.”  The film was not supposed to be “opinion,” but fact.  Therein lies the real problem.

  The prime example of the filmmakers’ imagination was having James Brolin, playing the former President, say that HIV-AIDS patients deserved to die.  “They that live in sin shall die in sin”—a line that the movie’s makers admit was created out of whole cloth.

  There is nothing wrong with opinion journalism—something in which this columnist regularly engages—but facts must be treated as the stubborn things that they are.  Leftist magazines such as the Nation, Mother Jones, and Washington Monthly take regular potshots at Reagan and his legacy—but they can’t create facts to bolster their cases.

  Sure, Hollywood never has adhered to the strict rules of the publishing business.  “The Reagans,” though, was being billed as an historical biography, which necessarily implies truthful and accurate depictions of Reagan’s two terms.  But by all accounts, the film wasn’t.

  The film’s backers, in fact, went out of their way to emphasize to the press that theirs was a fair portrayal of the Reagan years.  An executive for the production company behind the miniseries said in June, “It’s a well-rounded look at these two people… and in the end, it’s going to be a balanced story.”

  The filmmakers could have followed in the footsteps of Oliver Stone and crafted a fictionalized tale that included historical fact.  It could have even carried the tag “inspired by true events,” just like the current Hollywood blockbuster, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”  But doing so would have interfered with the apparent primary objective of the miniseries: smearing the reputation of the Alzheimer-stricken Reagan.

  According to published accounts, the movie opens during Iran-Contra, with dark, ominous music that was more fitting to a horror flick.  Buried deep in the film, and apparently given only fleeting attention, is Reagan’s nonstop effort to free Latin America from the death grip of communism or his steely determination to defeat the “evil empire.”  And we will probably have to wait until the Showtime debut—the pay cable sister station of CBS that now has the rights—to see if the movie includes perhaps Ronald Reagan’s most memorable line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

  Before pulling the project altogether, CBS had actually tried to re-fashion the final product, making at least 18 edits or deletions before realizing that even with less negative stuff, there was simply nothing positive to provide any real balance.

  If only the Reagan character had been given as much humanity as Hitler’s did in the CBS miniseries earlier this year on the German tyrant.  CBS gave real human dimension to the man who nearly perfected the art of genocide—meaning that had “The Reagans” gone forward, Hitler would have received more favorable treatment than the former President.

  Since defenders of the miniseries correctly note that its critics had not seen the finished film, the words of a top CBS executive should probably be given greatest weight.

  Daily Variety quotes a senior CBS executive, who explained the rationale behind the controversial decision: “We were under pressure on ‘Hitler’ and ‘Jesus’ (two recent CBS miniseries) and on our 9/11 movie, but we were convinced that once people saw the final product, they’d embrace it.  In this case, we had to say they were right.”