Just How Offensive Is Will Ferrell's 'Reagan'?

Ronald Reagan and Will Ferrell - H 2016
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THR obtained a copy of the script, and it's a well-researched comedy that offers an "alternate take" on seismic events in American history.

News that Will Ferrell optioned Reagan as a starring vehicle  it's a spec comedy script in which a dementia-addled Ronald Reagan is led to believe he's an actor playing the president — has set off a firestorm of controversy.

The project has drawn condemnation from Reagan's children Patti Davis and Michael Reagan, who called the movie "cruel" and cautioned that "Alzheimer's isn't a joke," as well as the Alzheimer's Association, which is "appalled" at the comedy's premise.

On Friday, not 24 hours after the story broke, Ferrell announced that he had scuttled the project, with a rep saying, "While it is by no means an 'Alzheimer's comedy' as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing the project."

If not an Alzheimer's comedy, then what is Reagan? The script, by first-time feature writer Mike Rosolio, landed in ninth place on 2015's Black List, having been singled out for praise by 25 Hollywood executives. It was popular enough in Hollywood circles that James Brolin, John Cho and Lena Dunham performed a live reading of the script last March.

And, most impressively, it was snapped up by Gary Sanchez Productions, the production company run by Ferrell and Adam McKay — the latter having recently graduated to higher-brow circles off the success of his Oscar-nominated financial-crisis movie, The Big Short.

How could this many smart, proven Hollywood hit-makers have gotten it so wrong? Most of the criticism seems to have come from people who had only read the logline, not the script. THR obtained a copy of Reagan to see what Rosolio intended.

It turns out Reagan is actually a good-natured and well-researched comedy that offers an "alternate take" on seismic events in American history — a direct descendant of 1999's Dick, in which Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams play ditzy teens who unwittingly bring down Richard Nixon.

But it does revolve around the conceit that the 40th president had no knowledge of where he was or what he was doing throughout his entire second term. 

The protagonist is Frank Corden, a low-level White House aide with a sweetly idealized view of American democracy. The first clues that Reagan is not in his right mind come early on: As Frank prepares coffee for Reagan re-election staffers, he overhears Treasury Secretary Don Regan (depicted as a stern, mentor-like figure) in a heated phone conversation with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (cartoonishly abusive, he's described as "all Brylcreem and forehead veins").

"Write it down for him," Regan says. "Write everything down. Even his name!"

In the next scene, Frank visits his parents' home for a family dinner. It's here that the script sets up a key plot point: Frank's father, Jack, has developed early signs of dementia. Having dealt with this before, Frank knows that bringing up the subject of baseball stimulates his father and gets him to communicate more. 

That expertise comes in handy later in the script when, minutes before Reagan's second inauguration, Regan and Weinberger — joined by national security adviser Robert "Bud" McFarlane (nervous and shifty) — are frantically on the hunt for someone named Mark whom the president keeps asking for.

Frank realizes Reagan is actually looking for his "camera mark," and, jumping to action, pretends to be a movie director. Reagan assumes he is Frank Capra, and, upon hearing "Action!" takes the stage and waves to thousands. Nervously standing nearby are other real-life Reagan cabinet members like deputy security adviser John Poindexter and chief of staff James Baker (described by Rosolio as having "hair plugs and nervous eyes").

The comedic bits then tumble into place: Reagan thinks Mikhail Gorbachev is Ernest Borgnine; Reagan announces, "Hey fellas, let's bomb Russia!" and his generals wonder if he's kidding. (He is.) Later, Reagan, complaining about an imagined wardrobe assistant named Libby, announces, "I want Libby gone. No more Libby."

That leads to the bombing of Libya.

Meanwhile, Oliver North cavorts in the background, depicted in the script as the kind of part Ferrell built his career on: a dim-witted, cocaine-snorting party animal who finds the perfect assistant in Frank's equally dim intern, Fawn Hall. 

By the end of the film, Reagan's inner circle of bumbling baddies get what's coming to them, and a clueless Reagan gets his hero moment in front of the Brandenburg Gate, as Peggy Noonan — the one female character, she's painted as his whip-smart, honorable speechwriter — and Frank proudly look on.

And then there's Vice President Dick Cheney, who looms throughout as a mysterious and menacing presence. In the second-to-last scene, Cheney — who's already setting the stage for George W. Bush's presidency (W. is painted as a complete dolt, not unlike Ferrell's famous Saturday Night Live impersonation) — makes his true nature known.

A speech Cheney delivers to Frank underscores the dark side of what is ultimately a story of political cynicism versus idealism: "We needed a face, we needed a voice," he says. "We elected an actor and didn't even think about it. … It's the 21st century: We don't really need a president."

In light of the meteoric political rise of a certain reality star, it doesn't take much to understand what Ferrell and McKay saw in the project.