Paramount // 2001 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // December 2nd, 2002
The incredible true story of a nation in chaos.
The Day Reagan Was Shot extends a gripping premise: show the power struggles, confusion, gaffes, incompetence, and general chaos that ensued after the White House and America learned that an attempt had been made on President Reagan's life. Writer and Director Cyrus Nowrasteh has obviously done his homework and come up with a frustrating and sometimes terrifying narrative. But this DVD is exasperating because of the squandered potential. The retelling is dull (even when intellectually dramatic events are occurring), the video quality is poor, and the extras are worse than nonexistent. If offered any two episodes of The West Wing for The Day Reagan Was Shot, I would take one of the episodes and not feel cheated.
Alexander Haig is frustrated at the lack of respect extended him by the new blood that President Reagan brought to the White House. Seething with frustration, harboring squelched ambition, and recovering from triple bypass surgery, he is the poster boy for stress.
None of those issues magically disappear when he finds out that President Reagan has just been shot by John Hinckley. With the President in surgery and Vice President Bush in transit to Texas, Haig becomes the senior cabinet member at the White House. He also incorrectly believes himself to be the third in line of succession for acting president.
Haig sets up a crisis control center in a White House situation room and tries to maintain order. Besieged by political infighting, erroneous press reports, faulty equipment, incompetent personnel, and a sense of accountability, he struggles to make sense of the crisis at hand. Tension increases when Caspar Weinberger announces he has raised the state of military readiness. Tension escalates when satellites reveal unusual Soviet submarine activity.
Meanwhile, Reagan's situation is precarious. At first they believed he had not been shot. Then they realized he had a bullet lodged between his heart and collapsed lung. Finally, the young doctors learned that the bullet was designed to explode on impact.
Acutely aware that The Press and America are screaming for answers, and disdainful of others' abilities to handle it, Haig gives a press conference. Under stress and the assumption that he is acting president, Haig makes his infamous announcement: "I am in control here."
The fit hits the shan as matters worsen on all fronts. We know Reagan survives. The real drama is in how close the world came to mass destruction due to America's incompetence at critical moments.
At his honor's request, the court reporter just read back the Facts of the Case. Hearing it highlights how blandly The Day Reagan Was Shot handles Cyrus Nowrasteh's fascinating script; it sounds more exciting than actually watching the movie. Part of the blame goes to Cyrus Nowrasteh himself. (We'll get to that). Paramount makes it a big deal that Oliver Stone executive-produced this picture, but none of Stone's frenetic signature is present. This has two effects: unmatched expectations and bewilderment at the conservative camera work.
It is hard to explain this, but I'll try. The story is well thought out. The subject matter is weighty and terrible. The events as they stand are dramatic and moving. And the acting is fine. But the scenes seem stripped of drama and tension. Example: at one point we learn that no one can find the key to launch the nukes, even though a rain of Soviet missiles is thought to be heading toward American soil. You'd think it impossible to film such a scene without some level of dramatic tension, but no one seems particularly worried. They all kind of look around, leaf though procedure manuals, yell some, and then point the finger at someone else. On an intellectual level, I know that is precisely the point: missiles heading towards America, incompetents in charge. But the scene is so devoid of fear, responsibility, or human reaction that I instinctively assumed there was no real crisis, and the dramatic irony never materialized. This basic problem is replayed over and over. Events are intellectually horrifying, but the movie captures it with such sardonic detachment that the drama of the event itself is subverted.
To better cover its ass, the prosecution presents Exhibit Two, which is a minor spoiler. Hinckley sees Reagan and walks up to him with his hand on the butt of his gun. He shoves people out of the way. Slow-mo Reagan smiles and startles as flashbulbs go off. Hinckley looks menacing and smug. Reagan wobbles and looks stunned. It is an artistic, dramatic assassination scene. But wait! Hinckley just shakes Reagan's hand and walks away. Later, they meet again, and this time there's no tension, wonder, or art. Hinckley pulls out a gun and starts blasting with no buildup. We see people running around in panic, but we can't really tell what is happening. This second scene is dramatic waste. An impression of chaos and the knowledge of shooting, with no emotional impact.
I think much of this can be attributed to the directing. The events seem carefully staged. Being carefully staged is expected, but seeming so causes a scene to feel wooden. Cyrus Nowrasteh was the impetus behind the whole idea, and it is clear that he wanted his version of events to be faithfully depicted. But this is a case of too many hats placed on one head. Had Cyrus written the script, provided artistic direction, and left the directing to someone else, The Day Reagan Was Shot might have had both intellectual interest and emotionally powerful drama. The direction is just too focused on factual accuracy, and lacks fluidity.
By the way, The Day Reagan Was Shot is very much political. It is tempting to factor in the political angle, but this review will stick to a discussion of the movie and DVD. Politics has no place in this courtroom!
The frustration I have with this DVD is not limited to the antidrama. For starters, the image is poor. It is victimized by crawlies, particularly in the whiter areas of the image. The colors are desaturated with poor contrast, giving everything a grayish cast. There are regular digital blemishes. Finally, the transfer is overly soft.
But the most grievous charge levied against The Day Reagan Was Shot is the lack of extras. There are none, a crime of which many DVDs are guilty. Yet this movie almost demands extras: how was the script constructed? What is the reaction of actual political figures of the Reagan era? How closely did Haig's press conference and the resultant press frenzy mirror actual footage from the time? The lack of extras is compounded by some incriminating evidence. The original Showtime broadcast of The Day Reagan Was Shot was bookended by two features: an hour-long New York Times documentary called "Bulletproof: Reagan After Hinckley" and "At Reagan's Side," 20 minutes of interviews with some of Reagan's staff. A more satisfying moviegoing experience could be provided by watching a videotape dub of Showtime on Sunday, December 9 between the hours of 8:00 PM and 11:00 PM. The video would look about the same, and the extras would have been a hell of a lot better. The last time I checked, three hours fit onto a DVD. What's the excuse?
The casting is superb. Dreyfuss is convincing and gives a complex interpretation of Alex Haig. Holland Taylor and Richard Crenna aptly portray the first couple without giving into caricature. The acting is the best element of The Day Reagan Was Shot. Unfortunately, the acting seems stilted. I suspect the culprit is the direction, with pace (editing) as an accomplice.
The script is fascinating and the interpretation of the events is intellectually satisfying. I imagine a documentary on the making of this picture would carry more drama than the picture itself.
The Day Reagan Was Shot has potential that simply doesn't materialize. Had this movie been created prior to the television program The West Wing and not last year, his honor would be more lenient and consider it a harbinger. But The West Wing is superior in every way. The lighting is better, the action is grittier, the acting superior, emotional impact heavier. And The West Wing lacks the one advantage The Day Reagan Was Shot had going for it: historical impact of one of the most dramatic events in the last 30 years. There's no way around it. The Day Reagan Was Shot doesn't stack up, Oliver Stone or no.
On counts of repeated blandness, I find The Day Reagan Was Shot guilty. It is to serve no less than four years in late night isolation. On the charge of political revisionism, Oliver Stone is free to go on the technicality that we did not try the charge in this courtroom. Which brings us to the charge of "Extras Deprivation." Due to the grievous disregard shown by Paramount, especially heinous because of the easy access to fine extras that aired in close proximity to the original broadcast, I find Paramount guilty as charged. They are to serve a life sentence of providing feature-rich DVDs.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* FilmForce: Oliver Stone to Shoot Reagan