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Beyond `Reagans' hoopla, a critical, typical biopic

The oldest rule of Hollywood must be that nothing calls attention to a product quite like controversy. So it's surprising that Reagan loyalists leaned so heavily on CBS to reject "The Reagans" last month, thereby creating much anticipatory ado about an average docudrama that certainly accentuates the negative about the former president and his wife.

"The Reagans" is not exactly a hatchet job. But the made-for-TV movie, which premiered last night in a shortened, 3-hour version on Showtime (CBS's Viacom cousin), is definitely a critical take on the political and domestic lives of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. James Brolin's president comes off as an intensely conflict-averse space cadet, and Judy Davis's Nancy is a controlling neurotic who yells at daughter Patti like Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest." By the time the pill-popping "Nancy-pants" is railing about an interview with writer Joan Didion while immersed in bathtub suds, a balanced portrayal isn't a serious possibility.

But really, when was the last time you saw a made-for-TV movie about anyone, from Sonny and Cher to nearly every member of the Kennedy clan, that didn't accentuate the negative? As a rule, biopic makers exaggerate dramatic moments and exploit myths to fashion a dishy piece of entertainment, moving from iconic moment to iconic moment with cartoonish overtones. They want ratings, not accuracy. Anyone who goes to TV movies for balanced history lessons probably believes the claim of the title "E! True Hollywood Story." "The Reagans" locates most of its dish in Nancy, who is truly the focus of the movie. The action opens during the Iran-Contra affair in 1987, flashes back to the couple's first meeting in 1949, and then works its way up to the last days of Reagan's presidency. And from the get-go, Nancy is presented as the more active player in the couple, twisting a marriage proposal out of Reagan, then orchestrating the meeting with Barry Goldwater that sets her husband's political career as a Republican in motion. While he gradually becomes a performing puppet for the party's power brokers, who view themselves as the former actor's "director," she strives to stay on top of all of them, going after any aide or cabinet member who threatens her dominance. Her moment with Donald T. Regan late in the movie -- "I see through you, Donald Regan, don't you forget it. I see right through to your lying little heart" -- is a juicy one.

Ironically, Nancy's tenderest action in the movie comes in the scene most frequently attacked during last month's controversy. After losing her favorite hairdresser to AIDS and meeting with a group of people with AIDS, Nancy urges the president to talk about the crisis. "The blame will be on our heads, Ronnie," she says. In last night's edited Showtime version, he responds with a cool silence that mirrored his public silence. In the original script, he was to have responded, "They that live in sin shall die in sin" -- a line his loyalists claimed he never said.

There are a few other brief glimpses of Nancy's warmth, and they are usually when her husband is in danger -- after the 1981 assassination attempt and early in his second term, when she mentions his "forgetfulness" to a doctor. But even as she directs all of her protective instincts toward him and his failing memory, her relationship with Reagan never reaches the operatic heights that would make "The Reagans" into a great love story. Their marriage is portrayed as close but codependent, loving but not epic.

The lead performances are both strong; without them, "The Reagans" would be a dull three hours. Brolin manages to capture Reagan's speech pattern and facial expressions without playing them for parody. He conveys an effective mixture of affability and vacancy, the latter of which is particularly apparent when he interacts with his children, from the loyal Michael to the rebellious Patti. You can see the growing distance in Brolin's eyes as Reagan begins to recede into Alzheimer's.

Davis, always a force of nature, is more over the top than Brolin, and never far from camp. Is she accurate? Who knows. Is she entertaining? Without a doubt.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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