By the Blouin News Politics staff

Getting ‘Reagan’ Right

by in U.S..

Portrait of Ronald Reagan (Source: Gage Skidmore/flickr)

Portrait of Ronald Reagan (Source: Gage Skidmore/flickr)

In addition to periodic coverage of geopolitics in Latin America, W. Alejandro Sanchez has previously reported on substance abuse in Netflix’s ‘Jessica Jones’ and whether cyber warfare is accurately depicted in the USA network’s ‘Mr. Robot.’  The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author of this blog are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Blouin News or Louise Blouin Media.

Renowned actor-comedian Will Ferrell has pulled out from playing the U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) in a potential film titled ‘Reagan’. While biographical films of prominent politicians, particularly heads of state, are nothing new, the potential tone of the film and speculation that Ferrell would portray the late president sparked a sizeable wave of criticism.

Only a few details are known about Mike Rosolio’s script and the movie is in stand-by now that its lead actor has withdrawn. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film’s basic plot is: “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.”

In 1994, President Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and it has long been the subject of speculation whether he already had some of the symptoms while he was in office. A 1997 New York Times article states that “Mr. Reagan’s four main White House doctors say they saw no evidence that he had crossed it as President.”

On the other hand, certain public displays of confusion are often mentioned as examples of him already having mental health issues during the 1980s. In a commentary of the 1984 debate between Reagan and then-Vice President Walter Mondale, a November 1984 article in The National Review describes the late head of state’s performance: “Reagan made none of the dreaded gaffes, which may have been his problem: He kept recurring defensively to points — minutes and minutes on Social Security, for instance — in a manner that suggested overcoaching. Something certainly threw him off his stride; he rambled, stalled, and huffed nervously throughout the first half of the debate.”

When it comes to backlash over the film, Ferrell’s acting skills were not the main problem (he has starred in financially successful comedic films such as ‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,’ and impersonated former President George W. Bush, during his tenure in ‘Saturday Night Live’); it’s the portrayal of President Reagan itself that has many worried. The late head of state is greatly respected by the U.S. Republican Party and conservatives in general, hence any portrayal that is interpreted as insulting to the memory of the late U.S. president will bring about severe criticism.

President Reagan ruled during the 1980s, and only recently passed away in 2004, while his late-wife, former First Lady Nancy Reagan, passed away this past March. In other words, President Reagan’s presidency and fame (including the popularity he gained as a well-liked B-film actor) occurred well within our lifetimes. This increases the connection people, particularly conservative individuals that revere his presidency, have with him. Leaving filmmakers little room for error.

The Reagan family itself has been straightforward in their critique of the film and the initial casting of Ferrell. Patti Davis, daughter of the late head of state, published an open letter to Ferrell in her blog, writing that “perhaps you have managed to retain some ignorance about Alzheimer’s and other versions of dementia. Perhaps if you knew more, you would not find the subject humorous.”

This author would argue that the issue with ‘Reagan’ is not only how the late president will be portrayed as a person and how Alzheimer’s would be addressed (it’s unclear what kind of tone the script has), but also the film’s potential impact on his image as POTUS.

After all, ‘Reagan’ suggests that President Reagan was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s during his presidency. This throws into question his mental faculties during some of his most important foreign policy decisions throughout his second term, like the 1986 air strikes on Libya, the Iran-Contra affair or his famous 1987 “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech in Berlin. To suggest that the leader of a global nuclear power was not clear-minded at a critical time like the Cold War (even if, by the 1980s, it was ending), is no small matter.

With Ferrell withdrawing from the project, it is unclear if ‘Reagan’ will be produced, nevertheless, a biopic of the late president should occur. Without a doubt Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease and portrayal of any individual that has it must be addressed respectfully, but this should not deter a film that portrays President Reagan’s crucial presidency, addressing his policy successes and flaws alike.

– W. Alejandro Sanchez, researcher
@W_Alex_Sanchez | Blog: Geopolitics

The author would like to thank Erica Illingworth, who is pursuing an M.A. in International Relations at the University of San Diego, for her helpful suggestions throughout the preparation of this commentary.