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The Day Reagan Was Shot

As produced by Oliver Stone, it's little surprise that Showtime's made-for-cable docudrama about the attempted presidential assassination on March 30, 1981, has generated controversy over its historical accuracy and political point-of-view. What is surprising, however, is that so much of said controversy is brilliantly swept away for 98 minutes by a truly gripping, powerful, and darkly comic treatment of its subject, like a "very special" prequel to the NBC-TV's excellent series "The West Wing." Written and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, The Day Reagan Was Shot recounts both John Hinckley, Jr.'s crazed assault on the 40th U.S. President and Ronald Reagan's subsequent hospitalization and surgery, and also examines the chaos amongst Reagan's staff as they scramble about the White House Situation Room to delegate the necessary authorities amidst harried confusion over errant press reports, signs of possible military movement by the Soviet Union, and misunderstandings regarding rules of succession. Critics of the film — most of them conservatives — have blanched at the sometimes broad characterizations and the alleged exaggeration of Secretary of State Alexander Haig's aggressive attempts to assume control in the absence of Vice President George H.W. Bush (en route to Texas on Air Force Two), culminating in Haig's famous, nationally televised, and incorrect announcement that he was third in line for the country's highest office (the Speaker of the House actually comes behind the VP). Such gripes, perhaps, derive from an overly defensive posture towards producer Stone's well-publicized liberalism. As depicted by Nowrasteh, Haig (brilliantly played by Richard Dreyfuss), while overzealous in his methods, takes swift and (over)confident control as his fellow cabinet members still appear dazed by the day's shocking events. Nowrasteh creates palpable tension between the mercurial Haig (who, despite his great public error that day, is presented here as absolutely spot-on about many more crucial issues), shell-shocked Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger (Colm Feore), and the calm, controlling style of Reagan's Chief of Staff, James Baker (Kenneth Welsh). The irony of "crisis control" issues creating their own crises of authority is not lost on Nowrasteh, and while he aptly highlights the dark comedy — and moments of mundane absurdity — therein, he seldom sells his characters short (only Bush, as played by Michael Greene, veers too close to caricature). Each key character in this uncertain historical moment is portrayed as doing what they feel is best and right to settle the nerves of the administration, the public and foreign adversaries under terrible pressures, and while Haig may have been cast as history's goat during the process, The Day Reagan Was Shot creates a much more complicated and sympathetic picture of his defining moments. Similarly, the film also has been praised and decried for its depiction of President Reagan as "clueless" and an "empty suit," but such descriptions bear little actual resemblance to the heroic Reagan played quite sympathetically by Richard Crenna: a man who, facing possible death, reacts with nearly sublime grace, conducting himself with the honor and dignity his office demands, and thoughtfully straining to put the intimidated hospital staff and his frantic wife Nancy (Holland Taylor) at ease with light humor under the gravest personal circumstances. It's perhaps the most glowing, affectionate and character-affirming tribute to Reagan anyone can expect to see from Hollywood for years to come. Nowrasteh's film may contain small historical inaccuracies, as every fact-based film is prone to do, but it is also a tight, compelling, wry, and wonderfully acted drama that should — at least to viewers with an open mind about its motives — capture the essence of a turbulent and emotional day in America's history. Paramount's DVD release of The Day Reagan Was Shot offers a sharp full-frame 1.33:1 transfer (OAR) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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