The jury is still out on Ronald Reagan. Was he a great leader who energized the economy or a doddering ideologue who alienated the less fortunate? This two-part PBS documentary provides wide-ranging and balanced analysis of the man and his presidency, but leaves final judgment to the viewer.

The jury is still out on Ronald Reagan. Was he a great leader who energized the economy or a doddering ideologue who alienated the less fortunate? This two-part PBS documentary provides wide-ranging and balanced analysis of the man and his presidency, but leaves final judgment to the viewer.

Part of “The American Experience” series, “Reagan” is a 4-1/2-hour collection of film clips and interviews that takes a gestalt approach to the Great Communicator, seeking the roots of his philosophy and policies in childhood experiences.

The narrative is peppered with a host of insightful, seemingly frank interviews, but the program’s main thrust remains a chronological recounting of Reagan’s life and times. Particular attention is paid to young Ron’s stint as a lifeguard, which this docu suggests shaped his future character. Certainly, his devoutly Christian mother and alcoholic father made their mark, for good and ill.

Though the details of the 40th President’s bio are well known, one can’t help but savor the paradox in Reagan’s once heading a union, SAG. Indeed, in the days before his conservative conversion — the result of a bitter studio strike — Reagan actually stumped for racial equality and against nuclear proliferation.

But the siren song of conservative politics was alluring, especially for an actor down on his luck. It’s especially telling when one longtime adviser recalls the mood during Reagan’s first term as California governor. “We weren’t just amateurs,” he recalls, “we were novice amateurs.”

Yet Reagan was a quick study with an uncanny sense of the moment. When he called in the National Guard to quell riots in Berkeley, some people branded him a fascist, but many more felt he proved himself a no-nonsense leader intent on preserving peace.

The tide of popular approval, however, did not protect him from criticism once he attained the presidency, nor from an assassin’s bullet only months into his first term.

Some commentators feel Reagan was never the same after the attack, and that his increasing isolation kept him from achieving greatness. But whether by design or accident, seismic shifts characterized the Reagan presidency. The economy did finally flourish for a time under Reagan’s often maligned economic policies, and the manic arms race he initiated ultimately overwhelmed the economically disadvantaged Soviet Union.

Among the talking heads, sagelike Edmund Morris, Reagan’s official biographer, proves the most engaging. And David Ogden Stiers makes for a superb, flexible narrator, never better than when reading the celebrated letter in which Reagan announces his Alzheimer’s and bids the nation a fond farewell.

The film clips are mostly high-quality network feed, with color prevailing. Occasionally, home movie excerpts lend a more intimate touch. The interviews are uniformly well lit.

Reagan

Mon. (23), 9-11 p.m., Tues. (24) 9-11:30 p.m., PBS

Production

Filmed by WGBH Boston for PBS. Executive producer, Austin Hoyt; producers, Adriana Bosch (part 1), Hoyt (part 2).

Cast

With: Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, George Schultz, James Baker III, Ed Meese, Donald Regan, Michael Deaver, Ed Rollins, Lyn Nofziger, Nancy Reagan, Maureen Reagan, Ron Reagan, Patti Davis, Dr. Helen Caldicott, George Will, Robert Dallek, Edmund Morris and others.
Associate producer, Josh Clark; series editor, Bosch; editors, Betty Ciccarelli (part 1), Bill Lattanzi (part 2); writers, Bosch (part 1), Hoyt (part 2); camera, Terry Hopkins.
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