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The Day Reagan Was Shot

The Day Reagan Was Shot
Paramount Home Entertainment
2001 / Color / 1:37 / 98 min. / Street Date October 29, 2002 / $29.99
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Richard Crenna, Michael Murphy, Colm Fiore, Leon Pownall, Holland Taylor, Christian Lloyd, Michael Greene
Cinematography Michael McMurray
Production Designer Jasna Stefanovic
Art Direction Brian Verhoog
Film Editor Paul Seydor
Original Music Elizabeth Myers, John Trivers
Produced by Dan Halsted, Armand Leo, Oliver Stone
Written and Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An email response and rebuttal from 'Hank', 11.22.02

Ten times more entertaining than expected, the Showtime television movie The Day Reagan Was Shot is a bright comedy of errors that combines small doses of Dr. Strangelove and The Hospital with a thoughtful and fair assessment of the pandemonium that resulted in the afternoon when we almost lost our President less than two months into his term. The writing is exceptional, giving famous persons credible 'personalities', while respecting them as well.


On March 10, 1981, President Reagan (Richard Crenna) is shot by John Hinckley, and barely survives as doctors try to stabilize him; meanwhile, back at the White House, Secretary of State Alexander Haig (Richard Dreyfuss) sees the confusion as a cue to seize command. With communications out, Vice-President Bush (Michael Greene) thinks all is well; Haig responds to a report of a Russian missile launch and some wishy-washy news releases by telling the press that he is in command of the government, misquoting the order of succession to the Presidency on national TV. The rest of the day is a song & dance of bad decisions and bickering among Reagan's staff and various governmental officials, but in the end cooler heads prevail - Reagan's total incapacity is denied and George Bush runs the government without authority, while claiming the President is in charge.

It's one of those stories that just seems totally unlikely: With the President complaining of bruised ribs, nobody wants to take him to a hospital except one rogue secret service agent. The operating room is jammed with politicians demanding reports when the doctors haven't even located a bullet hole yet. Key telephones in the decision room go on the fritz. A disgruntled, take-no-prisoners official uses the vacuum of authority to redress personal wrongs, and to seize power.

Two separate groups think they're running things, the President's men at the hospital and Haig in the decision room. Add to this a press that reports that the President wasn't hit, and then that James Brady was killed, and a security staff that puts four men with Uzis in the operating room yet allows a psycho to walk in unchallenged, and you have one very, very trying day in Washington.

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh has penned a crackerjack script that moves like lightning and plays fair with all parties. 1 Reagan delegates all to his bickering, territorial staff, and sees himself as more of a PR figurehead. When he's shot, he's tough as nails, making light of his trouble and reassuring those around him, even though he's in desperate straits. First Lady Nancy Reagan (Holland Taylor) is often the brunt of sarcasm in parodies (Mars Attacks, anyone?), but here she's always there to support her husband 100%.

Naturally the bozo in the bus is poor Alexander Haig, impersonated with vigor by Richard Dreyfuss. An authoritarian bully already in a clash with Reagan (or, as some have maintained, the First Lady), Haig jumps the gun and assumes power as if reacting to a battlefield hit on his commanding officer. But he fumbles the opportunity by using it to even a personal score, to squelch petty competitor Caspar Weinberger (Colm Feore). It's a good role for Dreyfuss, who doesn't resemble the pompous general, but imbues him with a certain dignity that makes him believable.

The show format is a comedy of errors with a backdrop of real events, which I remember clearly, right down to the false news reports and Haig's bonehead civics lesson. The broadcast newsmen at NBC almost immediately refuted Haig's error. I wonder if our modern Washington correspondents are that well informed on the Constitution ...

Through it all, the show demonstrates how serious the situation was for the nation, with no clear chain of command acknowledged, for hours - or weeks, depending how one looks at it. Ex CIA chief George Bush handles the emergency by denying it, even though the law demands a formal change of leadership until the President recovers. Keeping Reagan's Presidential profile untarnished (he was the most successful & popular GOP booster in decades) is more important to these politicians than details like his life, the law, or the state of the country in a crisis. Had it been a Democratic President, the Republicans would have demanded an official, politically-damaging change of power. The real legacy of Watergate would seem to be that everyone in government lies about most everything, most all of the time.

The production is snappy, giving the large cast of excellent actors their needed moments. The two surgeons who save Reagan's life (Alex Carter and Andrew Tarbet) are wonderful centers of sanity, and when one of them pauses to pray for success, we're moved. The editing is snappy (Sam Peckinpah authority Paul Seydor is the editor, and two key sequences use audio motifs and structures patterned on The Wild Bunch) and the music sparse but effective. Oliver Stone was an exec producer, yet the show avoids condemnation of Reagan's conservative administration on any issue save the staffing shortcomings that made The Day Reagan Was Shot such a touchy one.

Paramount's DVD of The Day Reagan Was Shot looks great, especially so when so much TV fare on DVD gets short shrift in the quality department. The flat picture is bright and punchy, and the audio crystal clear. There aren't any extras, which is a shame; with my high-school-student son on hand and asking questions (and blurting out Haig's succession error immediately, what a kid), it would have been great to be able to access an extra with newsfilm of the real events, of the day a Jodie ('the face that launched a thousand assassins') Foster-inspired nutcase tried to kill our top executive.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Day Reagan Was Shot rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 21, 2002

An Email Response from 'Hank', 11.22.02:


Glenn: I think you've been had.

I have to take issue with your comment in the review of The Day Reagan Was Shot, that it represented "the often hilarious truth about the back stage maneuverings and petty power plays that occurred when the President was incapacitated by a bullet in 1981." Unfortunately, the most devastating critique of a movie's authenticity I've ever seen was directed at this very production by one of the participants, Richard Allen.

Now, obviously, Richard Allen has a strong self-interest to do that. But one of the things he brought to the table was that there'd been a recording made of the deliberations in the Situation Room, with the knowledge of all the participants. That's what made his critique so devastating--he backed up his take on the crisis with real evidence.

I'm afraid reality, in this case, was NOT as portrayed on the screen. Now, I understand that filmmakers may need to truncate and edit reality to create their work, but the fabrications in The Day Reagan Was Shot, were utterly at odds with the evidence.

This is the specific article I read, originally in the Wall Street Journal:

1st link

You can see a bit more about it at:

2nd link

3rd link

Actually, it's a hell of a note when I'm defending the Reagan White House--I'm an FDR Democrat, and I hated him and all his people and his policies.

You should have been warned by the participation of Oliver Stone, who quite obviously subscribes to don't-let-the-truth-get-in-the-way-of-the-story-we-want-to-tell school of history.

I worry a lot about the blurring line between fiction and reality. I think, since folks are getting a lot of their information from movies and TV these days, it puts a special duty on the makers of historical works to get it right. Unfortunately, I see no great feeling for that duty on the part of people making historical films, generally, just endless defense of their right to make their films any way they want.

Indeed, like Oliver Stone, they ignore any inconvenient evidence, and force the facts into the story they want to tell, missing the good stories history offers.

Consider Gladiator. Commodus is one of history's great villains, a spoiled, pampered partyer and athlete (sounds like a frat-boy we know, doesn't he?), who was totally unsuited to have power, but felt entitled to it. If you wanted to make a movie that reflected the real Commodus, Russell Crowe would be the perfect casting. I know it ain't gonna happen, but wouldn't that have been more interesting than the pathetic/crazy Joaquin Phoenix character?

Enough for now. If you want to print some of this, feel free. Best, Hank


DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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