BEFORE HE WAS ELECTED the fortieth President of the United States in 1980—after two failed candidacies—Ronald Reagan acted in fifty-three Hollywood movies. Equally at ease in comedies, westerns, and war films, he seemed on the verge of stardom for his role as a double amputee in Kings Row (1942) when he was called up for active army duty. Though he resumed his career after the war, he would never become a top box-office star. Nevertheless, when asked by an interviewer near the end of his second term how he reconciled his acting career with his presidential role, he wittily remarked that he could not imagine how anyone could be president unless he was an actor.
Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s The Reagan Show is an extended riff on that pearl of wisdom, a lively documentary that posits “the Great Communicator” as the first president to be calculatedly dependent on and a product of media performance. Of course, before Reagan, television introduced John F. Kennedy, who charmed America in his 1960 debates with the sweaty-lipped Richard Nixon, and defeated the latter in their first bids for the presidency.
But Reagan’s was the more sustained media phenomenon, and successful it was. Despite controversial economic reforms and regular confrontations with the Left—ironic, given that decades earlier he had been a Democrat—he was reelected in 1984 with the largest electoral-college victory in American history. The movie’s premise is validated by Pelez and Pettengill’s decision to forego the hindsight talking heads provide and rely entirely on archival footage, including videotapes created by the Reagan Administration. This ranges from outtakes of Reagan’s stumbling efforts to pronounce the name of a man whose election he’s endorsing to his stubborn commitment to an aggressive missile-defense system, aptly named Star Wars after the hugely successful film series.
The doc follows this topic as it came up against counterassertions from Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that Reagan’s approach clung dangerously to a Cold War mentality. Though Reagan was a rabid anticommunist who named names for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, in his second term, to his credit, and to the chagrin of those who accused him of selling out, he agreed to three summit meetings between 1985–87 with the leader of what he had not long before called the Evil Empire to negotiate a treaty aimed at the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Although this was only partly achieved, his efforts went a long way to dispel the militant anti-Soviet views most Americans inherited from the 1950s. And despite the opposition of ultraconservatives in Congress, he was so confident the Senate would ratify the treaty that he attended the final summit to close the deal before that assurance.
Tracing Reagan’s faceoff with Gorbachev, who was perceived by many as the wiser peace-seeking leader, the doc makes clear that it was Reagan’s need to outdo the Soviet leader in world opinion that led to his famous “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin, a moment forever enshrined in world—and media—history. The doc also suggests that Reagan’s shift toward a less belligerent stance on the “balance of power” philosophy was an attempt to repair the tarnished “good guy” image that followed the Iran/Contra scandal, which ended in his admission that he had made a deal with a hostile regime to trade arms for hostages. Compare that to the callow denials that spew forth daily from today’s White House.
Indeed, one of the movie’s supreme ironies is that the man whose economic policies are believed to have done incalculable damage for ensuing decades, whose war on drugs leaned on moralistic simplemindedness, whose suppression of social protests fueled racial violence, and who turned a deadly blind eye to the AIDS crisis, seems, in retrospect, to have had the guts and goodwill to alter his course, change his mind, and admit his faults—in short, to have grown with the job and shown, God help us, some measure of dignity and grace.
If anyone who survived the Reagan-era experiences an unexpected, grudging nostalgia watching The Reagan Show, it may be because of the palpable difference we are forced to discern between a man whose mastery of the media enhanced appealing, if misapplied personality traits, and one for whom the media is a perverse extension of unchecked narcissism and whose tweets give a whole new twist to the concept of media power. In short, The Reagan Show is not just an entertaining and enlightening blast from the past; it’s a sobering reminder that however bad we thought things were, we had no idea how much worse they could become.
The Reagan Show opens Friday, June 30 at the Metrograph in New York and the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles. It will be available by video on demand on July 4.