Film Studies: Only Ronnie could ever play Reagan

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The Independent Culture

This December, American television is working to keep audiences at home. Today and next Sunday in the US we get the movie version of Tony Kushner's play, Angels in America. I'll be talking about that next Sunday. But first came The Reagans, notorious long before it dawned on our screens because the CBS network had developed cold feet about showing it.

There were other reasons for shifting The Reagans from the main network to the cable station Showtime (which at least cuts your audience in half), and the strongest is that the show is awful. You can argue that that's because the people who made it were uncertain what line to take - should they be satirical? Admiring? Or was there a proper and judicious balance of the two? Those questions only arose because it remains so difficult to reach a conclusion about Ronald Reagan.

Forty years after his death there's been a lot of Kennedy on television, too, and he's so much easier to read. Yes, he was rich, privileged, spoiled, macho and innately manipulative in that he came from a family where vying for Dad's approval was a regular part of life. Jack Kennedy was destined or doomed to be running for office and you can see the evolution of his cool charm. It's still a tragedy when he's shot in Dallas because he holds the screen and the camera as lightly yet as firmly as Cary Grant - if politics are screwball, he seems to say, just watch me and I'll wink.

To that extent, JFK is the true father of Reagan, and the first crushing failure of The Reagans was that the actor James Brolin seemed to have been cast and directed to highlight the buffoon in Ronnie. That is a travesty: Reagan had ease, charm, humour, timing, and an airy naturalness that lets us see how anxious (or pain-ridden) JFK must have been. It was Reagan who stilled one debate and won authority by saying he'd paid for the microphone. In truth, he seemed like someone who had invented the entire apparatus of television. He was, quite simply, the man who was on television, an actor playing the role of president. It didn't matter what he said so long as he kept talking in that ruminative way. He was the medium, and its massage, as absolute in ease as lack of substance.

But in any melodrama, it's hard to offer that ghostliness without making it seem conspiratorial. So The Reagans shows Ronnie as the stooge being manipulated by a fiendish Nancy (Judy Davis), by the wealthy Republicans who and schooled him for high office, and by the party apparatus that used him as a front. Brolin, who years ago was flummoxed trying to get the real charm of Clark Gable in the movie Gable and Lombard, meekly falls in line with this vision.

I am no friend to Reagan or his politics: I think his years were disastrous and sometimes impeachable. But I don't believe in him as a puppet being strung along by others. Reagan was a natural, and possessed of enormous - patently empty - authority. That's why only Ronnie could have played him - because the act was everything. Any attempt at imitation seems fatuous and mean-spirited. The soap opera of his years is there in the TV record, all the moments where gesture, shrug or a deliberate ordinariness deflected meaning or content.

Dramatise Reagan at home, with his unhappy kids, let alone beside the barely restrained venom of Judy Davis (a brilliant but very non-neutral actress) and you cannot help but expose Reagan as someone getting ready for Alzheimer's. Moreover the mini-series argues his mind was going long before the actual closure of his administration. That's not the point. The real lesson is that there was never anything like a mind there so much as an instinct to perform. But that is unactable. Nothing will suffice except the hours and miles of newsreel. For only there does the answer to America's crisis come through: that if the president is the man on TV, then the public, the electorate (or whatever) are no more than those who watch.