The Reagans — too controversial for CBS; shunted off to a corporate cousin, Showtime proves once again that the TV-movie genre is a vexed one, always pushing relentlessly toward mediocrity. You could have watched this production on Nov. 30 (airing again Dec. 10) and never for a second gotten caught up in biopic drama. You kept thinking about the casting (James Brolin’s careful, surprisingly uncanny portrayal of Ronald Reagan as a kind, well-meaning man ill-prepared for his role in history) or looking for signs of political slant (adding up minutes spent on Reagan policy triumphs versus missteps). Dramatic nuance was vaporized by the hubbub.
Exec producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and director Robert Allan Ackerman have done good work in the past, most notably Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, starring Judy Davis. Here, Davis, unlike Brolin, declines to impersonate Nancy Reagan, instead choosing to embody the First Lady’s essential demeanor to frequently thrilling effect. But too much of the movie is a slog through familiar moments — Nancy consults her astrologer; Iran-contra arms deals; Al Haig goes power-mad on camera after Reagan is shot — laced with cornball dialogue like ”What is it with this family that even a bullet can’t bring us together?” I am also persuaded by the argument that any portrayal of a man suffering in real life from Alzheimer’s disease, even one as mildly critical of its subject as The Reagans, brings unwarranted pain to his family. Fact-based TV movies usually sell somebody out; Reagan cannot defend himself. That’s shameful.