Charlton Heston may have lost his luster as Moses. Yet TV and movies persuasively define the past for us, meaning that Gandhi will always be Ben Kingsley, for example, and Gen. George S. Patton will always be George C. Scott.
When does dramatic license become unacceptable dramatic distortion?
Have a look, for arriving on Showtime, bracketed by a pair of related documentaries, is “The Day Reagan Was Shot.” It’s a crisp, suspenseful and--no joke--often funny original movie that recalls March 30, 1981, when the 40th president lay critically wounded and incapacitated in George Washington University Hospital after being shot by John W. Hinckley Jr., and his White House and Cabinet scrambled to keep the nation calm, at times through deception.
As entertainment in the hands of writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh, “The Day Reagan Was Shot” is a winner. When not on the edge of your seat or smiling broadly, you’ll be incredulous
And as history? Oh, that.
Consider: On the screen is an account of a potential national crisis that plays almost as satire on “Saturday Night Live.” Watch as the President’s Men at times imitate Keystone Kops at the hospital and in the White House basement’s Situation Room. Watch as Secret Service and FBI agents have a near shootout over possession of the “football"--nuclear release code sequences that are always at the president’s side. Watch as Secretary of State Alexander Haig (Richard Dreyfuss) and other Cabinet members come apart when the “football” briefly goes missing at the hospital, only to turn up in the possession of an agent sitting on the toilet.
How much of this should be flushed? Well, you see the problem.
The movie’s depictions of Hinckley’s assassination attempt and the administration’s misleading reports about Reagan’s dire medical condition are matters of record. As is Haig’s epic gaffe in aborting a televised press briefing by Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes to tell the nation, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House
But how much of the rest of it happened as told by a movie whose executive producers include Oliver Stone, filmdom’s most noted revisionist of history?
Do we praise it for lifting a veil on national leaders by claiming they were quasi-bumblers who increased the nation’s risk during this incident? Or do we slam it for possibly undermining faith in government, through guilt by extension, at a time when the present Bush administration continues to rally support for its campaign against terrorism?
Foes of dangerously over-the-top history will surely vote for the latter.
A number of accounts, not always agreeing, have been written about the shooting and its aftermath, and history is always subject to interpretation. Moreover, Americans have been blindsided by their government too often to discount reports of its behaving in a dysfunctional manner. And a lingering question is whether it was in the nation’s best interest to lie or be truthful about Reagan’s condition.
“The Day Reagan Was Shot” is no “Rashomon” tale with conflicting views of the same reality that offer viewers a choice, however. Nor is it one of those credible histories with footnotes that clearly identify sources. Movies don’t do that.
Instead, viewers must trust filmmaker Nowrasteh, whose script in some key areas collides head-on with other accounts.
The story begins as a straightforward monograph. We see Hinckley attempt to gun down Reagan (Richard Crenna) outside a Washington hotel and the wounded president stagger into the hospital before collapsing and later delivering those now-famous quips to doctors (“I hope you guys are Republicans”). Soon the frantic first lady (Holland Taylor) arrives with jelly beans.
As surgeons work over the president to save his life, a parallel drama evolves in the Situation Room, where a snide, belligerent, tyrannical, petulant, shouting Haig and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (Colm Feore) are continually at odds over who should have the helm until the vice president returns. Meanwhile....
* A phone repairman is discovered working under their conference table as they argue and strategize.
* CIA director William Casey (Jack Jessop) mumbles incoherently.
* The influential Reaganites known as the Troika--Chief of Staff James A. Baker (Kenneth Welsh), White House counselor Ed Meese (Leon Pownall) and photo-op maestro Michael Deaver (Michael Murphy)--are at the hospital, in knots over Haig.
* An intruder sneaks into the hospital, puts on a lab coat, locates the semiconscious Reagan alone in his room and is later discovered hovering over the president before being dragged away.
* Early word of unusual Soviet submarine activity off the East Coast is ultimately perceived as a looming nuclear threat, with near-disastrous consequences.
Some of this comes down to a matter of degree.
Take Casey, so famous for mumbling in real life that Reagan reportedly complained of being unable to understand him. There is no explanation for his speech here, however, leaving one to conclude that his mind is gone.
Take, also, the ambitious Haig, who reportedly felt slighted six days earlier when Reagan put Bush in charge of the administration’s “crisis management” and was also having outbursts after open heart surgery.
It’s a big jump from that, however, to Nowrasteh’s near-megalomaniacal, out-of-control Haig. Compare him with the less-overwrought Haig heard on an audiotape made inside the Situation Room that day by another participant, national security advisor Richard V. Allen, and played in one of the sidebar documentaries.
“There was an atmosphere of calm, not chaos and confusion,” Allen adds.
You’re thinking that Allen may have an agenda or something to hide. A more neutral observer is Lou Cannon, the respected former Washington Post reporter whose fourth book on Reagan, “Ronald Reagan: The Presidential Portfolio,” has just been released.
Having not seen the movie, Cannon based his response entirely on my description of it. “This is an incident I’ve examined and reexamined,” he said by phone, “and what you described [the atmosphere inside the Situation Room] I’m almost certain never happened. By and large, the Reagan White House handled it well, with the glaring exception of Haig’s disastrous briefing.”
Nowrasteh stands by his movie, he said by phone, while admitting that the “football"-toilet scene was dramatic license drawn from his knowledge that the agent in possession of the “football” had earlier used the toilet.
He acknowledged, also, that the armed face-off between Secret Service and FBI agents didn’t happen as depicted. But he said they did have “confrontations,” and “guns were out.”
His source for that? “Secret Service accounts from that day” and “the Reagan Library,” he said.
About that “football,” Allen says in one of the documentaries that there was a duplicate that he had possession of in the Situation Room. If so, wouldn’t that preclude a panic over its alleged disappearance?
“I didn’t know there was a second ‘football,’” said Nowrasteh, adding that he found Allen’s statements about this “very strange.”
In the movie, also, the perceived Soviet nuclear threat turns out to be a harmless simulation by the North American Aerospace Defense Command. However, NORAD conducted no such operations that day, Allen says in one of the documentaries. When apprised of that, Nowrasteh said he had based that part of his script on “circumstantial” evidence.
As for the hospital intruder who reaches Reagan’s bedside, Nowrasteh said he’s certain that happened and that he read of it in Washingtonian magazine. Even if didn’t happen, though, it plays well, which is all that really matters.
“The Day Reagan Was Shot” premieres Sunday night at 9 on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14).
Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at howard .email@example.com.