2004/11/29

A film review - the TV movie The Reagans

The Reagans – the TV movie

Actress and activist Barbra Streisand, whose husband James Brolin plays President Reagan in the movie, responded to a report by Drudge that she had a hand in its purported anti-Reagan slant.

On her official website she insists she has had nothing to do with it and spent only four hours on the set.

"What is going on . . . is that the Republicans, who deify President Reagan, cannot stand that some of the more unpleasant truths about his character and presidency might be depicted in the movie, along with his positive actions," Streisand says. "This is what the Right Wing does when they are faced with a truth that is not 100% positive for their side — they spread vicious lies and attacks and scream and yell until they get their way."

Hmm, so Streisand responded to a report in the famously inaccurate and unreliable Drudge Report by stating that she "had a hand" in making "The Reagans" a supposedly anti-Reagan movie, but of course we don't get an exact quote and naturally she and her website say no such thing. Most interesting. The Drudge Report is an Internet site, meaning any comments are likely to have been typed, so I wonder if someone calling "herself" Barbara Streisand made this mysterious and oh-so-convenient statement.

Scenes where Ronald Reagan declares himself to be the Anti-Christ (After the killing of 262 Marines in Lebanon) and declares that he is not concerned about AIDS because “they that live in sin shall die in sin.” either do not sound credible to my ears or have been admitted to have been fabrications. Neither scene appears in the DVD of the movie

Scenes where Nancy Reagan is seen as a control freak and where she consults an astrologer for all sorts of decisions were things I heard about at the time and which seem accurate to me. Ronald Reagan getting the idea for Star Wars from a 1940 movie “Murder in the Air” does repeat a story I heard at the time, but appears only partly right. The idea of shooting down a missile with a missile goes back to the Eisenhower Administration, was seriously debated in the 1967 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and was finally dropped by the Nixon Administration and the ABM Treaty was signed in 1972. I remember a college textbook in 1978 covering the ABM idea as a system that was feasible, but being held back because it wasn't considered worth the cost of building it. I read a pamphlet in 1982 advocating a return to the ABM idea and Reagan announced the return of the notion in 1983. So “Murder in the Air” may have inspired Reagan personally, but the missile defense idea is one which promises decades of research contracts worth hundreds of billions of dollars to lucky arms manufacturers, which explains why it's still going despite the disappearance of the Soviet missile threat.

The Washington Times declares that

For years, liberal academics have tried to explain how the Soviet Union collapsed without giving credit to the U.S. president who challenged communism head on and won.

They also complain that:

...the movie does not give [Reagan] due credit for reversing the ascendancy of the Soviet Union...

I disagree with this assessment as the movie shows Reagan dealing with an apparently evil Gorbachev (Who was really the guy who made the Soviet Union collapse) and then has a scene where Reagan is informed that Gorbachev “blinked” and decided to allow the development of “Star Wars” and sign an arms-control treaty. As this is really the only time the movie goes into the end of the Cold War, I'm not sure why it doesn't count as giving “due” credit. The movie could have lied and said that Reagan's arms buildup had something to do with the collapse, but it doesn't give us any particulars.
The Washington Times also complains that Reagan is not given credit for the "good" economic times during and after his administration. The economists at CEPR disagree that Reagan brought in good times for America. They point out that the twenty-year period 1980-1999 lagged significantly behind the earlier twenty-year period of 1960-1979. Reagan ushered in a period of much higher inequality and much lower growth whose negative effects can be felt to this day.

Of course, as the Television Academy nominated the TV movie for seven awards and noted archly that:

Critics charged, before having seen the project, that it cast the former president as being overly influenced by the first lady, that Reagan turned his back on the AIDS crisis, and that the couple had little time for their children. (italics mine)

All of which had been alleged by other news accounts during Reagan's two terms in office. These allegations were not made up out of thin air. It is a well-documented fact that Reagan did not mention AIDS even once, even though many thousands of people died from it during his time in office. The family headed by Ronnie and Nancy was a certifiable mess. A bigger bunch of screw-ups and whiners and losers is hard to remember. I remember the comment on Nancy's discussion of her daughter Patti Davis in My Turn. The comment was in the nature of: "Good Lord! How can a mother talk about her daughter in such a manner?" Granted, Patti was apparently quite a handful and their troubles with each other started way back when, but there's still a concept of blood loyalty. A parent should never badmouth her child in such a manner.

What really bothers me about the movie is that the wars in Central America, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, took up a huge amount of the Reagan Administration's time and attention, yet are mentioned only glancingly as the other part of the Iran-Contra scandal.
The scandal is described as Oliver North having gotten Robert McFarlane to take a cake over to Iran during a Muslim holiday that calls for fasting during the day. First off, McFarlane was North's supervisor, not the other way around. It is never the fault of a junior person when a senior person takes their advice. Second, the scandal, as far as Congress was concerned, was neither the Reagan Administration's Iranian policy, nor their Nicaraguan policy, but the connection between the two, the mixing of cash and personnel between the two covert operations. Congress was also unhappy about the Administration getting and spending money without Congress' approval, a direct violation of the doctrine that Congress exercises the "power of the purse". Those who know British history know that taking the power of the purse away from the King was the major element in the rise of Parliament.
The October Surprise investigation was canceled not when the evidence revealed that it was all a big fuss over nothing, but when Bill Clinton came into office and presumably wanted to make peace with the people who had just lost the election. The October Surprise was the allegation that Ronald Reagan, the elder George Bush, Bill Casey (Later to be made head of the CIA) and many others communicated with members of the Iranian government to hold back the hostages until Reagan was able to win the 1980 election and take the oath of office. The movie describes Reagan's feelings as "The Iranians have humiliated both Carter and me." An odd assertion as I was in Washington DC then and I don't remember anyone making any comments to that effect.
The timing of Reagan's oncoming senility is also a most interesting coincidence. He starts losing it right before people in Reagan's cabinet begin plotting the second contact with the Iranians, the hostage exchanges of the late 1980s. This very conveniently exonerates him from any involvement with the scandal. The movie quite accurately shows that Reagan's speechmaking ability was the last to go. He was able to make good, clear, humorous speeches right up until the end.
In Robert Scheer's book, With Enough Shovels, Scheer details the many horrifying statements Reagan made about nuclear war being winnable and survivable. Yes, Reagan came out after that and made unequivocal statements about how nuclear war was something to be avoided, but I suspect that his own loose statements were the major motivation behind the Nuclear Freeze Movement.

Garrison Keillor (Lake Woebegone, A Prairie Home Companion) has made a career out of talking about the simple, earnest rural folk who may not be as smart as the fancy city-slickers, but whose hearts are pure and intentions good. Bob Newhart's second series (1982-1990) also focused on the simple but good-hearted New Hampshire folks who generally had more common sense than fancy city folks did. If the writers of The Reagans had been intentionally trying to make Reagan resemble Keillor's and Newhart's simple, earnest, rural-type person, they clearly didn't really "get it" as they had Reagan make that mean comment about people suffering from AIDS deserving their fate.
But as 1. Their Reagan is presented as not terribly bright 2. Is nevertheless sincere, honest and good-hearted 3. Surrounded by cyncial city-slicker types (The Republicans, who have to work to get him away from the Democrats and who succeed because they have a better philosophy of government) 4. Makes Forrest Gump-style simple pronouncements that usually turn out to be wiser than even he suspects and 5. Who usually turns out to be right.
As I've pointed out, making Reagan fit this archetype requires that Americans forget an immense amount about Reagan's governance. It's also necessary to maintain the illusion that his policies usually turnd out right. They didn't, but the Cold War did end around the time his presidency did. As the Washington Times suggests, I have to go into a good bit of detail to convince someone that the Cold War would have ended about then anyway. It's not all that hard to convince folks that only Reagan's policies could have accomplished that, especially as memories fade in our a-historical society.

It's these omissions and the Keillor-Newhart-Gump themes that make me strongly suspect that Barbara Streisand is telling the truth, that she had no influence whatsoever on the movie and that her husband James Brolin was given the script on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.


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