The War Over The Gipper

President Reagan is lounging in his pajamas trying to watch TV when Nancy starts that old argument again. "Al Haig's got to go," she tells Ron. Nancy never liked Haig, and now she's needling her husband again. "You know what he did when you were in the hospital?" she asks. "I know he thought he was going to take control, but that's not so bad," Ron says amiably, between bites of an Oreo. Finally, she swoops in front of the president, placing her blood-red nightgown between him and the television, and gets him where it hurts most. "Get rid of Al, Ronnie, or you're never going to end the cold war!" Bingo. "All right!" he says. "Now get off my goddamn back, will you?"

You think that fight sounds ugly? It's nothing compared with the brawl over CBS's "The Reagans." This mini-series (scheduled for Nov. 16) is full of scenes from a marriage like the one above, some of them loving, a few of them nasty and many of them certain to tick people off. Two weeks after a leaked script ignited protests, "The Reagans" has become radioactive--and nobody's even seen it yet. A Web site called boycottcbs.com recorded more than 45,000 hits in less than a week. Such commentators as Bill O'Reilly have made "The Reagans" the plat du jour on their menus, and the Republican National Committee now demands that CBS let historians vet the show. But the ugliest battle is inside CBS itself. Stars Judy Davis and James Brolin decline to do any press. Director Robert Allan Ackerman has opted out of the editing, and CBS executives are now cutting it themselves. As one person close to the film says, "It's being edited with a machete." Sources tell NEWSWEEK that the network has even considered selling the $9 million film to Showtime.

What's even more amazing is that none of this happened sooner. "The Reagans" was always meant to be a warts-and-all portrait of an American icon, with ample attention to the president's hands-off approach to governing, his wife's behind-the-scenes power plays and their estrangement from their children. Still, CBS thought the movie was, so to speak, fair and balanced. It credits Reagan with defeating the Soviet Union, and its central theme is the First Couple's love affair. The script was vetted by two teams of lawyers, and producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who would not be interviewed by NEWSWEEK, have insisted that every fact (though not every line of dialogue) is supported by at least two sources. Before a New York Times story last month detailed conservatives' com--plaints, network executives reportedly loved the movie. "They all thought it was brilliant," says someone who worked on the film.

But the day the Times's story broke--"The Reagans" crew calls it "Black Tuesday"--the movie instantly became trouble. CBS chairman Leslie Moonves, who approved both the script and a juicy eight-minute trailer, ordered the lawyers to look at the movie again, and asked for assurances that the facts were all in order. When he was told everything was fine, Moonves started editing anyway. "There are things we think go too far," he told CNBC's Tina Brown last week. (Moonves also declined to be interviewed by NEWSWEEK.) At that point, Ackerman removed himself from the editing in protest and the actors stopped talking. "Nobody seems to know what's going on," Ackerman told NEWSWEEK. "Whatever is going on is going on very secretly."

As of late last week, the film had been through at least three edits. The most incendiary line--where Nancy asks the president to do more for AIDS victims and he replies, "They that live in sin shall die in sin"--has been cut. So has footage of a young Ron Reagan Jr. doing ballet. (Go figure.) Most of the other cuts come from Nancy's scenes. For all the concern about how the president is portrayed, Davis's take on Nancy looks like Lady Macbeth in a couture dress. "The film version is so milquetoast compared to what her daughter wrote," says Carl Anthony, a producer of the film who once wrote speeches for Nancy. "It's odd to me when people get all worked up, because it's called a dramatization. They forget what that means."

Will the changes satisfy skeptics? Don't bet on it. "I had some Republican call me yesterday," says Jeff Wald, Brolin's manager. "He said, 'You guys should be ashamed of yourselves. He has Alzheimer's and can't defend himself.' Could Jackie Kennedy defend herself when they did the movie on her?" Michael Paranzino, who launched boycottcbs.com, says nothing short of a complete remake would get him to cancel his campaign. "I think they should pull it from November," he says, "bring in consultants who aren't hostile to Reagan and try to come up with a truly balanced picture." Of course, if CBS does dump the movie on Showtime--both owned by Viacom--much of the heat would dissipate into the cable ether. But some who worked on the film worry about the long-term implications of "The Reagans" controversy. "This is censorship," says one source. "A pressure group has had a major network rip this movie to shreds." But we can look forward to one fun outcome: the director's-cut DVD.