Film & TV

At the Movies, the Gipper Gets His Due

President Ronald Reagan in 1982 (National Archives)
Dennis Quaid is cast in a big-budget telling of Reagan’s life.

The movie that many Americans have been waiting for — a full-length feature on the life of Ronald Reagan — is becoming a reality. Last week, it was announced that 64-year-old Dennis Quaid (The Right Stuff, Soul Surfer) has been signed to play Reagan in a biographical movie scheduled for release next year. Quaid will play Reagan as an adult, and teenager David Henrie will play the Gipper as a young man. The film is produced by Mark Joseph, who has been an executive on 45 films ranging from The Passion of the Christ to Max Rose, the last film starring comedian Jerry Lewis. The executive producer is Ralph Winter, of the X-Men superhero franchise.

What makes the movie exciting to Reagan fans is that it will be the first movie that will not seek to take down or tarnish the former president. Reagan was intimately involved with Hollywood for some 30 years, first as a leading man, then as the host of the top-rated General Electric Theater and as six-term president of the Screen Actors Guild. But most of Hollywood never forgave Reagan for becoming a conservative. Take Ida Lupino, the noted actress and director. She used to babysit Reagan’s children in the 1950s. But after he became a Republican in 1962, she cut off all ties and never spoke with him again.

The films in which the character of Reagan has made an appearance have reflected that bitterness. In 2003, CBS hired left-wing activist James Brolin, Barbra Streisand’s husband, to play Reagan in a three-hour miniseries. The New York Times got hold of an advance script and found several scenes, involving the Hollywood blacklist and AIDS, that it called “historically questionable.” One showed Nancy Reagan begging her husband to help AIDS patients only to hear him reply, “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” Lou Cannon, Reagan’s most prolific biographer, dismissed the film by saying the assertion that Reagan had been an FBI informant was “really wrong” and that “Reagan was not intolerant” toward gays. CBS executives eventually caved and shunted the film to their Showtime cable channel, where it bombed.

That disaster kept Hollywood silent on the topic of Reagan for about a decade. Then, in 2016, only weeks after the death of Nancy Reagan, it was announced that Will Ferrell was going to star in a “comedy” about Ronald Reagan’s slipping into Alzheimer’s while he was still president. The script had made Hollywood’s informal roster of the best unproduced scripts making the studio rounds. It was given a live read, with Lena Dunham and James Brolin (again!) playing various parts. Here is the summary:

When Ronald Reagan falls into dementia at the start of his second term, an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander in chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie.

Luckily, the outrage from Alzheimer’s-advocacy groups and the Reagan family forced Ferrell to abandon the project only two days after it was announced.

The movie begins with a Putin-like figure, the new leader of Russia, visiting a nursing home to interview an old KGB agent (played by Jon Voight) to learn how Reagan and the U.S. defeated Communism.

Mark Joseph, the producer of the new Reagan film starring Quaid, says he felt compelled to make his movie before Hollywood attempted once again to rewrite history. His research has been meticulous. He personally reviewed KGB and FBI files kept on Reagan. He interviewed more than 50 of Reagan’s friends, aides, and cabinet members. Among them were people who rarely grant interviews, such as Donn Moomaw, Reagan’s pastor, and Ben Aaron, one of the surgeons who operated on Reagan after the attempted assassination against him in 1981. The script is based on two biographies by Reagan historian Paul Kengor and is personally endorsed by Ed Meese, Reagan’s close confidant and attorney general while he was president.

The script premise is a fascinating one. It begins with a Putin-like figure, the new leader of Russia, visiting a nursing home to interview an old KGB agent named Viktor Petrovich (played by Jon Voight) to learn how Reagan and the U.S. defeated Communism. The movie tells Reagan’s story through Petrovich’s eyes as he follows Reagan for four decades; Petrovich can’t get his superiors to heed his warnings about Reagan until it is too late. The Petrovich character is a composite of several KGB agents who did indeed track Reagan throughout his career. The film also covers other aspects of Reagan’s life, including his domestic policies and religious faith.

“The story of Reagan is a fascinating one, whatever one’s politics,” Joseph told me.

We came at it from the angle of wondering what his enemies thought of him and how they followed him and ultimately lost to him. Nobody knew him like his enemies did — and it’s through that lens that we tell the story. It’s impossible to understand the last century without understanding who Ronald Reagan was.

I agree, and here’s my prediction: It will be impossible for millions of Americans to resist seeing a film that finally puts Ronald Reagan in proper historical perspective, and that will be highly entertaining to boot.

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