- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Recently announced plans to produce a $30 million feature film about Ronald Reagan’s life (“Reagan“) have caused quite a stir in the press. The media has been speculating about who should play Reagan. Should it be Ben Affleck, Zac Efron, Tom Hanks, James Franco, Jon Hamm, Hugh Laurie, Chris Pine or Joaquin Phoenix?

Pretty amazing, when you consider the film won’t even be released until late next year. And there is no cast, director or distributor on board yet. In fact, the producer, Mark Joseph, is still raising funds.

Reagan, who died in 2004, ended his second term as president in 1989 more than 20 years ago. Where has the so-called creative community been all this time? Asleep at the camera?

Mr. Joseph told me when he optioned two Reagan biographies by historian Paul Kengor four years ago, that no one in Hollywood thought people would be interested in a film about Reagan.

One studio executive laughed as he reminded Mr. Joseph about a failed 2003 CBS miniseries. “The Reagans,” starring James Brolin, took a one-dimensional view of the president, portraying him as “a shallow thinker … easily manipulated by his wife, Nancy, and his closest advisers,” according to the Hollywood Reporter. Apparently, the fact that “The Reagans” essentially trashed Reagan didn’t matter to the now-former studio executive.

Mr. Joseph, a registered independent who admires Mr. Reagan, says his film will take a more nuanced approach to the nation’s 40th president. The script covers the president’s personal life, including his loving relationship with his wife, Nancy, and his plan to defeat the Soviets.

So why is there such excitement about a Reagan biopic now? Has something changed? Yes, actually. Mr. Joseph told me he believes Reagan has now “transcended politics and become a cultural icon.”

Mr. Joseph may be on to something. I distinctly remember the day - March 8, 1983 - Reagan made his “evil empire” speech. I was working as a producer for NBC News. My colleagues were aghast the president would use such an ancient phrase to describe the Soviets.

They believed only a dimwit who didn’t understand the subtleties of international negotiations would use a word like “evil.” Sophisticated news people knew no one was to blame for the Cold War. No one was evil. No one was good. Eventually, many of my co-workers came to respect Reagan, although grudgingly, when the Cold War ended a few years later, because he never backed down.

Others have come around, as well. Liberal historian Sean Wilentz told Newsweek in 2008 that intellectuals’ views of the president have mellowed: “[Reagan‘s] impact on the world and country, whether you like it or not, was so important that to ignore him is to ignore an entirety of American politics.”

Democratic presidential adviser Clark Clifford, known as the “wise man,” used to get huge laughs at Georgetown dinner parties in 1981 whenever he called Reagan “an amiable dunce.” But as liberal journalist, Howell Raines, who covered Reagan’s presidency for the New York Times, pointed out: “Twenty years later, we know that Clark Clifford was charged in a banking scandal and the dunce ended the Cold War.”

The Hollywood crowd may even be easing up. Last week, avowed liberal James Brolin, who played Reagan in the miniseries, went out of his way to describe the president as “a terrific guy and a terrific leader” after Mr. Joseph told the Hollywood Reporter Mr. Brolin “loathes” Mr. Reagan.

When Reagan died at 93 in June 2004, I watched in awe as more than 100,000 people lined up, some waiting as long as 10 hours, to get a chance to view the president’s casket as he lay in repose at his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif. Two days later, as the president lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, another 100,000-plus people paid their respects. Can anyone seriously deny that this man is one of the nation’s most beloved leaders?

I have no doubt a well-produced Reagan biopic would resonate with a broad spectrum of filmgoers. As Mr. Joseph put it: “We hope to make a movie to be enjoyed by his admirers, his enemies, his former enemies and his enemies-pretending-to-be-admirers.”

Perhaps the enthusiasm for the Reagan biopic is a harbinger of what to expect on Election Day, Nov. 2. After all, issues haven’t changed much since Reagan was president: big government vs. the private sector, tax cuts vs. tax increases and American exceptionalism vs. just being one of the guys in the world.

Ronald Reagan, there you go again.

Dave Berg was, until recently, a co-producer for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”