James Brady, After the Bullet : HBO film follows press secretary’s struggles since the Reagan shooting

From Washington

Jim Brady may not have come all the way back from his wounds, but he clearly has recovered the ability to generate a sound bite.

“Anyone that has a pulse will be moved by this movie,” he says, of “Without Warning: The James Brady Story.”

“And moved in the right direction, too.”

The HBO film, which premieres tonight and airs three more times in June, relates in graphic detail the 1981 assassination attempt that wounded President Reagan and left a bullet in the brain of Brady, his press secretary. Brady was accompanying the president when John Hinckley opened fire outside the Washington Hilton, a scene the film recreates in slow motion and from the targets’ point of view.

“I’m trying to think of another word for ‘enjoy,’ ” Brady says. “I’m not sure I enjoyed it. My one adjective for it is powerful--a powerful movie. And though it’s done so well, I mean, how can you enjoy seeing a scene where you’re blown away.”

For Sarah Brady, the film generates a different sort of discomfort. As chairwoman of Handgun Control Inc., she has lengthy experience in relating the fundamental drama of the shooting. (Brady notes that his wife owns a bag that reads, “My life is a soap opera.” “And it’s the truth,” he says.)


So resonant is the family’s experience with handguns that the primary federal gun control legislation of the last 20 years is called simply The Brady Bill. Passed by the House in May, it may come up in the Senate while the HBO movie is airing. If so, the publicity couldn’t hurt, the Bradys agree.

“But that’s separate,” Sarah Brady says of the lobbying. Her ambivalence at the HBO movie involves not so much the shooting as the portrayal of intensely private, and sometimes best-forgotten, moments during the aftermath. After twice screening a work print, Sarah Brady is still not sure what to think.

“Anything I say shouldn’t detract from what the filmmakers have done. It’s just an awkward thing,” she says.

“I can take the emotional part. But how would you feel if somebody painted a picture of you? Supposing it looked like you and you thought it was great. Would you say it’s beautiful? It’s a bizarre situation to be in.”

Both Bradys have high praise for the cast and David Puttnam’s production. Beau Bridges stars as Brady, known to staff and family alike as Bear, and Joan Allen plays Sarah, whom her husband calls Raccoon.

Bridges must labor under sometimes gruesome makeup, especially for the early hospital scenes. As for Allen, Brady says, “I don’t mean this the way a lot of people in the country would take it, but she could sit right next to Jimmy Swaggart--and you’ve seen Swaggart when he goes into one of his crying jags.”

The film was based on Mollie Dickenson’s 1987 authorized biography “Thumbs Up,” but the Bradys say there appears to be a good deal of screenwriter Robert Bolt in the film as well. Bolt, a two-time Oscar winner (“Dr. Zhivago” and “A Man For All Seasons”), struggled to regain his powers of speech and movement after a stroke.

“You almost have to live that,” Brady says. “To understand how there’s a little person inside you trying to get out. And you never, at any time, want anyone to have to live that to understand that. The frustration comes from our inadequacy to tell people how it actually works.”

The key word is frustration, Sarah Brady agrees. Today, her husband, though confined to a wheelchair, is very much the articulate, good-humored spokesperson, bantering with only slightly slurred speech through an interview he steers on and off the record at whim.

But in the period that the movie covers, both Bradys were struggling with what Hinckley’s bullet had done to their lives. There was inspiration, in the work of surgeon Arthur Korbine (played by David Strathairn, and known in the Brady household as Dr. Goodknife), and in Sarah Brady’s efforts to mobilize public opinion against handguns.

But during the wrenching first months of a rehabilitation, which continues today, Jim Brady at times seemed determined to make life as unpleasant for those around him as it had suddenly become for him. It makes for challenging viewing, especially if you’ve already lived through it once.

“In all truth I am not a mean person, although it portrays me as a mean person,” Brady says with a smile. “Which is, in a way, good because you have a lot of built-up anger and frustration. I read the frontispiece of the book that Marilyn Price-Spivak, the founder of the Head Injury Foundation, wrote: “What I was I am not now. What I was I am never going to be again.”

“I don’t believe that,” Brady says. “I might not come all the way back, but I am going to get as close to it as anyone on Earth that’s gone through this has ever done. I believe that.”

“Without Warning: The James Brady Story” airs tonight at 9 on HBO, repeating Thursday and on June 24 and 27.

Karl Vick is a Washington-based writer.