There they go again. And again. And again.
Generally speaking, Hollywood tells history one of two ways. They either use small lies to tell big truths or they use small truths to tell big lies.
Lately, though, they’ve streamlined the process by simply using lies to tell other lies. While this might be permissible in Hollywood, where ticket sales are the ultimate barometer for success, this blasé approach to fact has spread to the book world with unsettling results.
Films like the excellent, critically acclaimed, Gladiator used a myriad of half-truths to construct a compelling narrative that was at its core, completely historically inaccurate. Yes, there was an Emperor Commodus and, yes, he was a few spokes short of a chariot, but no, he was not killed in the middle of the Coliseum by a general-turned gladiator-turned martyr. This is not a criticism of the film; quite the contrary, it was a triumph (no pun intended), but it was not historically accurate.
Conversely, Hollywood has embellished somewhat over the years, with, say, The Alamo, but the story was essentially correct. Patton was very accurate, as was MacArthur, as are other important portrayals of American history.
Recently, Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln contained some historical inaccuracies and several significant embellishments, most notably the fictional lot of lobbyists who conned, connived, and cajoled enough members of Congress to support the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, despite little evidence of their existence.
Nor did Lincoln keep speeches in his hat; nor did his son Tad play with glass negatives; nor did the 50-cent piece bear Lincoln’s image; nor did Mary Todd Lincoln watch the House vote from the galleries. Creative license and small fibs can be essential for crafting a compelling narrative that can fit in a film, sub-3 hours, and the end result was a masterpiece.
It was a wonderful film that was at its core truthful and accurate, and its merits far outweigh these small deceptions.
Present-day Hollywood can be forgiven for small errors of fact, as can present-day writers and aspiring historians, but not for large, glaring revisions. Sometimes a confluence of egos and ambition collide and leave the truth as the flotsam and jetsam on the sands of American history.
Which brings us to the most recent historical abomination birthed of Hollywood: the recently announced Reagan screenplay.
The script has yet to be made public, but from the table read in March of this year, the script’s logline, and a recent Hollywood Reporter article, the artists intended vision comes into focus. That vision is mean-spirited, gauche, and without any basis in objective reality.
Ronald Reagan, following a successful reelection, falls into dementia and must be manipulated into leading the country by a fictional low-level aide whose experience with his dementia-crippled father makes him the man most able to literally lie to, take advantage of, and trick a now-mentally handicapped Reagan into leading the nation. One might think that having a father suffering from dementia would give the child a sense of empathy or respect for those suffering from such mental afflictions, but that basic respect for humanity is conspicuously absent.
Let’s set aside the unfathomably offensive elephant in the room that is this approach to satirizing and skewering millions of dementia stricken humans and focus on the scholarship of the script.
In the script, according to the Hollywood Reporter’s reporting on it, Former Treasury Secretary Don Regan, who famously attacked the Reagan administration after being dismissed, is “a stern, mentor-like figure.” Meanwhile, the celebrated chief of staff James Baker has "…nervous eyes." Other falsehoods abound.
The noble and reluctant heroes are almost all cabinet members who have turned away from the Reagans in recent history and the villains and/or bumbling fools are almost all “loyal Reaganites.” The one exception is a female White House speechwriter who is portrayed positively, but still willing to manipulate a dementia-riddled man.
The screenwriter for the Reagan movie, Mike Rosolio may have drawn inspiration from Bill O’Reilly’s deeply flawed book, “Killing Reagan,” which also falsely charged Reagan with being addle-brained in his second term, holed up in the second floor of the White House watching soap operas while Nancy Reagan ran the country.
This book led to a now famous war of words between the author and famed columnist George Will, in which O’Reilly failed to rebut Will’s assertion that he, O’Reilly, never saw the memo on which the book’s criticism was based. O’Reilly was reduced to purple faced ranting, calling the Pulitzer-prize winning, universally respected author a “hack.”
O’Reilly also revealed that he does not interview people with “skin in the game” which literally means he doesn’t interview anyone who actually was involved in the things that he’s writing about. Journalists nationwide should rejoice; Bill O’Reilly has finally liberated you from the burden of ever conducting another interview.
The highly skewered revisionism in O’Reilly’s book and in the “Reagan” screenplay is unambiguously biased and mean-spirited, but not unusual. The real insult is the crux of what both the book and the film—that Reagan was crippled in his second term—inject into American history.
Annual Mayo clinic checkups, physician testimonies, and a record of tremendous achievement during his second term is still not enough to eliminate the falsehood that Reagan was mentally impaired during his second term. The basis of these false claims is usually a memo authored by James Cannon that Cannon himself later disavowed.
Yet the scurrilous rumors persist and are used to cast aspersions on, and dismiss, the legacy of a man whose fundamental beliefs were an anathema to the narrative of many hardline liberals and for-profit talking heads. If you think these don't matter and "it's just a fictional movie," or "it's just a book," well there are many Americans who will go to their grave believing that the U.S. government killed President John F. Kennedy based on the fiction of Oliver Stone. Embedding the seed of doubt in a foundation of truth is sometimes more than enough for many to advance the fictional narratives that serve the interests of the intellectually bankrupt.
Will Ferrell had the good sense to walk away from this train wreck of a movie script, after the tender pleading of Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, and son, Michael Reagan. Despite the damage done by O’Reilly, let’s hope others follow Ferrell’s lead. But it’s not over. National Geographic is scurrilously making a movie based on O’Reilly’s fiction.
There they go again.
Craig Shirley is widely recognized as one of the leading biographers of Ronald Reagan, having written four books including Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College and had lectured frequently on the 40th president including at the Reagan Presidential Library.
Andrew Shirley is a presidential researcher, a Master’s candidate, and a veteran of the United States Navy.