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TV Review: 'The Day Reagan Was Shot' uncovers chaos in the situation room

Friday, December 07, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Watching "The Day Reagan Was Shot" it becomes clear what an education "The West Wing" offers.

'The Day Reagan Was Shot'

WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.

STARRING: Richard Dreyfuss, Richard Crenna, Holland Taylor


Before "West Wing," some viewers probably had a rough idea of the role of chief of staff in a presidential administration. After seeing "West Wing," other representations of the presidency make more sense. It's easy to go, "Oh, he's the Leo," and the chief of staff's job is clear.

Not that viewers will confuse "The West Wing" with "The Day Reagan Was Shot." "West Wing" is a drama through and through. "Reagan" is closer to a dark comedy.

It doesn't make fun of Reagan, who's more of a peripheral character, or the shooting. It makes fun of the insanity that follows as various members of his administration vie for power.

Leading the pack is Secretary of State Alexander Haig (Richard Dreyfuss), who was shunned by Reagan's inner circle even before the shooting.

"I'm being undermined by weenies, second-rate hambones," Haig complains to an associate.

Before the shooting, Haig jockeys for a role in crisis situations, but Reagan gives those duties to Vice President George Bush (Michael Greene), calling Haig "my foreign policy guy."

As Reagan, Crenna nails the mannerisms, but doesn't attempt to do the voice. That makes "Reagan" a little difficult to watch at first because so little effort is made to authentically duplicate the real people. After a short while the drama and humor of the story push aside that awkwardness.

"Reagan" is at its most preposterous and most believable in scenes inside the White House Situation Room before and after Haig makes his infamous "I'm in charge" speech to the press. The program falters in the more personal moments. Holland Taylor makes an excellent Nancy Reagan, but she enters the hospital after the shooting looking like a hunchback.

"Honey, what did they do to you? I brought your jellybeans, darling," Nancy says to her incapacitated husband, clutching a jar of his favorite candy.

Did Nancy really grab jellybeans before rushing to the hospital? Without becoming a Reagan assassination attempt scholar, there's no way of knowing. That scene came off as one of the more outlandish. Details of in-fighting among Reagan staffers seems more credible.

Haig botches the order of succession -- changed in 1967, presumably after he got out of school -- and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (Colm Feore) inadvertently raises the country's DEFCON status, triggering fears of a nuclear fight with the Soviets.

CIA Director William Casey (Jack Jessop) is portrayed as a wizened, unintelligible Muppet. He's Yoda, but much less articulate.

Conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Oliver Stone ("JFK," "Nixon") is an executive producer of this film, but don't let that stop you from watching. The notion of a second assassination attempt inside the hospital seems like it's from out of left field, but much of what's presented here is evidently true, or at least close to true.

"If I know that an argument occurred in the Situation Room about a certain subject -- and I wasn't in the Situation Room -- I have to re-create that argument," said "Reagan" writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh. "But I know who the principals are and what their positions are."

Speaking to reporters at a Showtime press conference in July, Nowrasteh said there were contradictions in the versions of events told by the people who were there, and sometimes he had to simply pick one and go with it.

Portions of a tape recording of what went on in the Situation Room have been released, bolstering Nowrasteh's interpretation of events.

"It confirms, for example, their search for the 'football,' the nuclear briefcase," Nowrasteh said. "It also corroborates the whole discussion about the nuclear scare."

Whether it's mostly true or mostly fiction, "The Day Reagan Was Shot" is a must-see for anyone who revels in behind-the-scenes details.

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