Earlier today, news broke that Will Ferrell decided to back out of producing and starring in a film about President Ronald Reagan after getting tons of backlash for the project from many critics on the internet including Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis. The project did have a provocative logline – following Reagan “when he falls into dementia and an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander in chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie” – but The Hollywood Reporter got their hands on the script, and it looks like the backlash was more of a knee-jerk reaction than anything.
“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 descendent of 1999’s Dick, in which Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams play ditzy teens who unwittingly bring down Richard Nixon,” THR says on the script. “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.” Here’s a little bit about the end of the script:
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 vs. 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.”
Writer Mike Rosolio spoke about the script with Franklin Leonard on The Black List Table Reads podcast back in March, and what he had to say about it provides a lot more context in terms of his intentions and treatment of the former president as well as having a personal connection to dementia through his family:
I’ve always wanted to write something about politics. And when I say politics, I mean the entire process of politics – the individual skill set of politics and what you end up with now with the situation of this kabuki theater of the current election. And I wanted to try to do something a little bit different. My fastball has always been kind of taking something expected and making it a little bit weird. I love the Coen brothers for the stuff they do with that, I love Armando Iannucci for the stuff that he does with that, and the Cornetto trilogy guys. So I think that, through a lot of trial and error and a lot of thinking, I sort of zeroed in on the notion of this presidency and this time kind of changing everything and changing the way we think about our presidents, the way we think about our government, the way we think about leaders.
Yeah, I mean, you can’t go literally five minutes in this race without having one of the Republican candidates refer to themselves, talk about, or venerate Ronald Reagan like he is the defining leader of the last quarter century in American politics.
Especially…mainly in everyone’s mind. [laughs]
Right. And that is based on a near-fiction of the man rather than the actual man himself.
Right. It’s based on a lot of first-term stuff. And that’s another thing that kind of fascinated me about his presidency was that the first and second terms are so different. The first term is a lot of this sort of big bombastic “they’re an evil empire, we’re gonna go kill them, there’s nothing you can do about it,” and the second term is way much about…it’s more about world building. It’s more about bringing people together, it’s more about “tear down this wall,” it’s more about that stuff. And frankly, it’s more about what Peggy Noonan did. And I was really really fascinated by all of the dementia stuff, especially, with Ronald Reagan. It’s a very important subject to me personally, to my family personally.
Listen to the full episode below, or read more about the Reagan script over at THR.