The Reagan Show, a new documentary about President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), is drawn from archival sources—news clips, TV interviews, footage from the White House archives, and campaign ads, such as Reagan’s endorsement of John Sununu for governor of New Hampshire. Mostly concerned with how scripted that presidency was, this droll backward glance will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival, which kicks off today.
Reagan’s two-term presidency, from 1981 to 1989, is not “living history” for the young filmmakers, Pacho Velez (co-director, Manakamana, 2013) and Sierra Pettengill (producer, Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, 2013). Their fascination with the former actor began with a discovery of the voluminous amount of footage documenting his years in office. Velez and Pettengill culled 1,000 hours of footage to make their 74-minute film that mainly depicts the president’s second term.
In an attention-grabbing clip at the beginning of The Reagan Show, the presidential candidate concludes a stump speech by asking his audience to help him “make America great again,” Recalling the 40th president’s campaign slogan is the documentary’s one swipe at President Trump, but the filmmakers’ comparison of the two men is incomplete. While President Trump is not as photogenic, or as engaging a speaker as President Reagan was, his use of Twitter during his campaign (in 2015, Trump had five million plus followers) is analogous to the Reagan Administration’s savvy public relations machine, a main focus of this documentary.
Velez and Pettengill’s view of the popular (and populist) president is often short on historical memory, beginning with several clips that argue for President Reagan as the first media president. He was not, as Theodore H. White’s seminal “The Making of the President, 1960" (Atheneum, 1961) makes apparent in its investigation of President Kennedy’s campaign. (White is the journalist portrayed in the 2016 film Jackie.) As for the Reagan Administration’s tightly controlled presentation of their candidate and, later, their commander in chief, there is no doubt—yet reading White’s account of the Democratic National Committee’s advance team transforming sleepy Hyannis for Kennedy’s first appearance as president-elect, it is easy to see that administration as prototype.
The filmmakers’ glibness results in an entertaining documentary that ignores the Reagan Administration’s devastating domestic policies, namely Reaganomics and its anti-labor stance. Who can forget the president’s 1981 firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers? President Reagan’s supply-side economics is his lasting and dubious legacy to the American people, not Star Wars or the Iran-Contra affair, both of which get the most play in the documentary. The “selling” of Reaganomics was the public relations success of his administration. A lack of attention to historical detail is also apparent in the documentary’s footage of Iran-Contra that highlights the hostage exchange, rather than the Reagan Administration’s secret use of money from the sale of arms to fund right-wing military groups in Nicaragua.
The Reagan Show is at its best when it is depicting the end of that halcyon era when journalists, many of whom had come of age in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, did not hesitate to skewer a president or to bristle when thwarted by his PR team. One journalist lists the ways in which the Reagan Administration limited press access, including having reporters shout questions when the president and Mrs. Nixon were approaching Air Force One’s thundering helicopter. In another clip, journalist David Gergen describes the growing concern among his peers about whether or not the press was reporting the news or the White House news feed. In its portrayal of the press corps during the last pre-Internet president’s term, The Reagan Show lives up to its promised time capsule.
While President Reagan’s celebrated charm may not be apparent to some of us, even in retrospect, The Reagan Show illustrates the truth of his oft-repeated quip—“How can a president not be an actor?” The documentary’s wry depiction of the rivalry between President Gorbachev and President Reagan, as well as its brief clip of “the great communicator’s” apology over the Iran-Contra affair, go a long way to proving The Reagan Show’s contention that the actor’s best role was not in Hollywood, but in Washington, D.C.