Made-for-TV movies based on real-life people and events make the same mistake over and over: They reduce the people to cardboard saints and inflate the events into Celebrations of the Human Spirit. Most such TV movies deny their protagonists complexity, anger, doubt, and pain. Thus there was little reason to hope that the makers of Without Warning: The James Brady Story would apply anything more than the usual reflexive piety to a film about the 1981 shooting of Ronald Reagan’s White House press secretary.
Indeed, it seemed possible that HBO — ”the first to bring this amazing true story of triumph over tragedy to the screen,” according to its own press release — would make Without Warning even more reverential and timid than your usual triumph-over-tragedy telefilm. After all, the bullets fired by Brady’s assailant, John Hinckley Jr., were intended to kill the President; the story is therefore about a narrowly avoided national tragedy. And while Brady survived, he was never able to resume his job and, according to this account, regularly suffers great pain to this day.
But to the credit of screenwriter Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons), director Michael Toshiyuki Uno (Home Fires), and, in the title role, Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Without Warning is a TV movie that does some justice not only to Brady’s agony but to the complicated circumstances surrounding it.
The movie begins shortly before the Hinckley shooting, with Bolt’s script portraying Brady as a shrewd, hustling strategist who kept the press at bay with one-liners and obfuscation — he’s a grinning, back-slapping spin doctor. In the opening moments of Without Warning, Brady is shown preparing Reagan, played by Bryan Clark, for a speech condemning the welfare system. Clark’s Reagan is frowning as he looks over his notes — he’s not comfortable with what his speech writers have handed him until Brady suggests a line: ”Weed out the greedy to help the needy.” Reagan’s face lights up; he knows this mean-minded little rhyme will get great reaction. He repeats it, nods, and gives Brady warm thanks.
The press secretary is always feeding the President tips and jokes, making sure Reagan is never in a situation where he has to think for himself. On the day of the shooting, according to this movie, the only reason Brady traveled with Reagan for a routine speech at the Washington Hilton Hotel was that he didn’t think the President could handle ”some tough customers from the press in the reception line.” Bolt’s script is a sharp critique of the Reagan presidency that still manages to be sympathetic to Brady.
In these early scenes, Beau Bridges is smiley and sincere, just another variation on the nice-guy character he portrayed in Baker Boys. It’s not until Brady is shot and crippled that Bridges’ performance really takes off. Both the actor and the script refuse to sentimentalize Brady’s suffering and pain.
Forced to use a wheelchair, his face partially paralyzed so that speech is difficult, Bridges’ Brady is alternately determined and depressed. The best thing about Bridges’ performance is the way he subtly communicates Brady’s thoughts and emotions. There are scenes in which Brady’s White House pals visit him to make awkward small talk, and we see through his gestures and in his eyes both that Brady fully understands the discomfort he now causes them and the way this hurts and enrages him.
Without Warning also benefits from brisk, no-nonsense work by Joan Allen (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) as Brady’s wife, Sarah. The movie downplays the so-called Brady bill now before Congress, which would require a seven-day waiting period before the purchase of a gun, but does make it clear that the proposed legislation came about as much through Sarah’s commitment and labor as through Brady’s support.
Without Warning isn’t entirely free of maudlin moments or dull patches, but given its sensitive subject, it seems a lot more truthful and hardheaded than anyone could have expected. A-