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
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
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
You can see a bit more about it at:
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
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
Enough for now. If you want to print some of this, feel free. Best, Hank
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson