Premise: A young White House staffer helps president Ronald Reagan, experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s while in office, function by convincing him he’s an actor in a movie playing the president.
About: This script got a ton of press last week as Will Ferrell signed onto it only to, after a ton of backlash due to the supposed comedic treatment of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s condition, drop out a few days later. Reports later surfaced that he was never involved at all. Or maybe he was and forgot about it. I don’t know. Either way, this script made the Black List last year. It’s Mike Rosolio’s breakthrough script (he’d done a tiny amount of TV writing before this). Let’s see what all this controversy is about and then forget we ever talked about it.
Writer: Mike Rosolio
Details: 114 pages
There really isn’t that much controversy in the screenwriting world. I mean you got your Max Landis’s. You got your Diablo Cody’s. You got your egocentric bloggers who think it’s okay to review screenplays on the internet. But outside of those things, there isn’t a whole lot of drama in this craft. So when a script somehow manages to get Hollywood’s panties in a bunch, you can’t help but be curious, even if it’s another one of these biopic doohickeys that won’t stop clogging up the airwaves. Let’s see if “Reagan” is worth all the chatter.
It’s 1984, and 20-something Frank Corden is one of those rare people who got into politics because he wanted to make a difference. Unfortunately, nobody cares. The people who work with him don’t care. The people who work above him don’t care. Even his own family doesn’t care.
For two years, Frank’s political career can be summed up as, “How do you like your coffee?” And then one day, that changes. Frank notices that President Ronald Regan’s staff, minutes before his reelection speech, is freaking the hell out because Reagan keeps asking for someone named “Mark,” and nobody knows who Mark is.
Frank stumbles into the room and, because his own father has dementia, recognizes that Reagan is having an “episode.” He also realizes that Reagan isn’t looking for a man named “Mark.” But he’s literally looking for his “mark,” as in the piece of tape on the floor that actors use to know where to stand.
For those who don’t know, Ronald Reagan used to be a famous actor before he became president. So Frank rolls with it, telling Reagan to get with the program and that his speech “scene” is supposed to start soon. To everyone’s amazement, Reagan actually listens to him.
Naturally, Frank assumes this will be his last day on Capitol Hill, but instead gets a call from the Cabinet saying they want him to come back and do more of that movie stuff. Reagan is a wild card, rarely able to function. And having a director directing him – specifically Frank – seems to be the only thing that gets him to do what they need him to do.
Frank isn’t dumb. He sees this as an opportunity to move up the ladder, and so begins a networking campaign built off of pretending to be a movie director to get an Alzehimer’s-stricken president in and out of big speeches.
What we eventually realize is that this isn’t about Reagan at all. The president is more like a backdrop – an extra who comes in every once in awhile when needed. In the meantime, Frank tries to move up the most cutthroat business ladder in the world, all while operating with a butterknife. Will he succeed? It’ll depend on how long he can keep convincing the president that he’s in a movie.
This is a pretty ballsy screenplay. I feel like Alzheimer’s was fair game as recently as the early 2000s. But once the internet went p.c. police, anything that could be offensive to anyone in any situation, no matter how specific, was deemed off-limits.
Whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know. But there’s an added component to this. And that’s that Reagan’s kids are still alive. This isn’t a president who held office in 1906. This is recent. You put something out there that makes light of a man’s crippling disease, and you can bet his offspring are going to go after you about it.
So now that that’s established, what about the actual screenplay? If you strip away all the controversy, is it any good?
Yesterday, we talked about what happens when a story has no structure, when the characters have no directive. On the flip side of that is a movie like The Force Awakens. Abrams and Kasden make it clear what every single character in that movie wants. That’s why the film moves so quickly and with so much purpose. Because whenever a character is onscreen, they have a goal, they have something they’re trying to achieve.
Reagan is somewhere in between these two. It’s not High-Rise, where you have no fucking clue what’s going on. But Frank isn’t exactly Liam Neeson either. When he’s not helping Reagan stay on target with his speeches, he’s got this vague goal of “moving up the ladder.”
I’ve talked about the varying degrees of goals before. A character who’s trying to, say, save his wife, has an extremely clear and strong goal. But if a character is merely trying to improve his marriage – yeah, that’s a goal, technically, but how do we know when he’s succeeded?
Some of this gets resolved later when the Iran-Contra mess hits the media and Frank has to cover his own ass while keeping a worsening president on point. But it’s plot that’s arriving a bit late to the party.
I will say this though – If you’re writing a script that doesn’t have that clear character goal driving the story, an option is to introduce a PROBLEM. Problems, by their very definition, require solutions. And solutions require goals, since your characters will try and pursue them. The Iran-Contra PROBLEM achieved just that. I just wouldn’t have waited until page 80 to introduce it.
Despite all of this, I have to admit that the subject matter got me curious, so I checked out Reagan’s wikipedia page to figure out if Reagan was, indeed, experiencing memory loss while he was president. It appears to be a controversial topic, with those who worked with Reagan vehemently denying the accusation. Then again, admitting that the president was incapacitated while in office would open up the government to somewhere in the vicinity of 300 million lawsuits. So what are they gonna say?
It’s an interesting conversation, for sure, but I don’t know if it’s something you can make a comedy out of in this day and age. People on social media get offended if you say “Taco Tuesday.” You really think an Alzheimer’s comedy is going to survive that crowd?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Any time a character goal doesn’t have a clear end-point (i.e. move up the company ladder), the script doesn’t move with purpose. Clear goals (i.e. find the treasure) will move your story along with force due to the goal having a finish line.