The strengths and weaknesses of the late “Great Communicator” are well articulated in “Reagan,” Eugene Jarecki’s brilliantly shaped docu portrait of the 40th U.S. president, a natural-born performer who boldly ushered in the ’80s’ new morning and acted innocent when dusk fell before decade’s end. Seeking wider approval than that for most documentaries, the HBO film (airing Feb. 7) will be faulted by some lefties for stressing the genius of the actor’s turn on the international stage. Still, arguing how vastly Reagan was (and continues to be) misunderstood, Jarecki’s pic will strike others as a timely cautionary tale.
Where countless tomes have established that image was everything to Ronald Wilson Reagan, “Reagan” — the only major film devoted entirely to the man, oddly enough — has the images to prove it. The self-described “Errol Flynn of the Bs” cultivated his all-American heroism in fictional works and went on to address his public in productions that appeared increasingly real even as they continued to draw on classic Hollywood notions of good and evil. Jarecki’s playful cuts between film clips and presidential performances are perfect for a study of the man who wedded politics to showbiz and the ’80s to the ’50s.
“A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah,” Reagan once joked. Jarecki uses the quote to maintain not only the man’s relentless movie references, but also the often irresistibly entertaining way he expressed his politics. The docu also suggests, hilariously, that Reagan may have gotten the idea for his Strategic Defense Initiative from “Murder in the Air,” a cheapie 1940 spy thriller in which he appeared as agent Brass Bancroft. “America needed rescuing,” says Reagan’s son Ron (interviewed at length in the film), “and he was the guy to do it.”
For its first hour, “Reagan” focuses on the undeniable appeal of a handsome actor who read his lines well in every position he was clever and lucky enough to hold — war propagandist and staunch anti-communist in the ’40s, corporate pitchman for General Electric in the ’50s and Republican politician by ’64, when his shrewd attacks on the Red menace and the American “welfare state” made him look more presidential than his party’s actual candidate. Following domestic unrest, the war in Vietnam and Watergate, the pro-corporate, anti-union Reagan inspired hordes by promising — and, to a few, delivering — success rather than defeat.
Portraying the 1980 election winner as a nut that can’t quite be cracked, Jarecki reads his subject less in psychological terms than in satirically sociopolitical ones. Like the hero of “Forrest Gump,” Reagan is shown to have had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time — or at least until the mid-’80s, when the Iran-Contra affair had the president engaging in impeachable behavior while neglecting the casualties of Reaganomics and AIDS. Mirroring Reagan’s second term, the pic’s tone shifts from light to dark, a progression signaled by Jarecki’s appropriately cinematic title card, “The Plot Thickens.”
In the hands of ace editor Simon Barker, the film’s pop culture-laden assemblage remains brisk and witty throughout, including clips from “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” as well as 1985’s Soviet-bashing “Rocky IV” and, of course, Reagan’s many big- and smallscreen addresses. Song choices are excellent, from “Seasons in the Sun” to “Season of the Witch,” along with other historically apt selections from Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads and Nena.