Movie Review: ‘The Reagan Show’
Anyone who knows me knows I love historical documentaries, and this is what drew me to see the CNN Films documentary the Reagan Show. As you may have guessed this film documents the presidency of actor turned politician Ronald Reagan. But what set this apart from just about every other film of its kind out there is the absence of talking heads and commentators. In fact the entire narrative of the Reagan Show is pieced together utilizing the massive amount of archived footage which exists from this time. Directors Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez, were granted access to the film which was taped from within the White House during the 1980’s and pieced it together with public footage and news broadcasts at the time. Despite utilizing films from multiple different sources, the filmmakers are able to craft a coherent story of a man who used his experience and talent as an actor to build the ideal public image.
They go through his presidency throughout the Decade of Excess and wit each issue he tackled they utilized the never-before-seen footage of Reagan using his knowledge of film and PR savvy to control his side of the story. From he and his staff deciding where and when cameras could film, to his giving multiple takes of speeches to get the language and delivery just so. Early in the film we see how he orchestrated many of the famed images of he and Nancy on their ranch, capturing the image of the rugged American cowboy. Behind the scenes we see Nancy Reagan constantly complaining about getting on the horses and being obviously uncomfortable until the cameras started rolling. As the documentary illustrates this media savvy would remain with Regan throughout his presidency. During the Iran-Contra Affair the Reagan Administration made sure the constant press presence on the White House lawn was just far enough away, that the president could pretend he was unable to hear them, so he would strut by with just a friendly wave. Just for good measure they always made sure a helicopter was on the White House lawn as well with its engines on to create even more distracting noise.
Of course a story is not interesting without an antagonist, and the Reagan Show portrays Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as man who was Reagan’s equivalent. Using news footage from around the world, we see that the General Sceretary had the ability to be just as charming and PR-smart as President Reagan. We see news interviews with Reagan’s staunchest of allies like; Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterand as they are charmed by Gorbachev in their dealings. The news footage tells the story of a media at home and abroad which seems to be shifting against Reagan as the bad guy in the Cold War due to the harsh stance he has traditionally taken. This forces the President to double down on his gift as a communicator to not only restore his image but also make peace with the Soviet Union. This is by far the most intriguing plotline of the documentary as the world watches the two most powerful men on the planet play to the public and try to gain an upper hand in their decades old conflict. The fact that we see the story unfold through the eyes of the media of the time really adds to the power of what happened.
Making a documentary feature without experts or interviews to guide the narrative may seem odd but it allows the audience make them own interpretations. The Reagan Show shows us the good and the bad of one of the twentieth century’s most influential men and allows us to decide if he was a crusader for the American dream; an authoritarian from the pages of a Frank Miller comic; or something in between.