“The Reagan Show” is a documentary with a very catchy angle. It purports to be about how the presidency of Ronald Reagan brought the techniques of show business and mass-media image-making into the center of politics — not a novel insight, to be sure, but one that comes off as timelier than ever. (You could argue that what Ronald Reagan started Donald Trump perfected.) “The Reagan Show,” unfortunately, isn’t the movie that it pretends to be. It’s a glib and scattered exposé, the sort of ersatz thesis film that invites you to chuckle at the sight of Reagan doing multiple takes of a campaign commercial while flubbing the name “Sununu” over and over again. The inclusion of this vintage “feed” footage is supposed to be an image-making joke (look, the president was just a glorified TV hack!) as well as a tweak of Reagan’s shaky mental abilities (and he couldn’t even get John Sununu’s name right! — though Sununu, at that point, was just a distant Republican acquaintance). Yet it comes off as a meaningless cheap shot.
Even for those of us who disliked his politics, Ronald Reagan was a formidably appealing and dynamic personality, and part of the reason for that is that there was a fascinating sincerity to his image. He meant what he said, even when — as policy — it added up to baloney. (Donald Trump and his Congressional enablers are accused each day of lies, greed, and nonsense, but their debased “philosophy” was already gathering steam in the ’80s, when the magical thinking of supply-side economics became a fig leaf for the new gilded age.)
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Reagan was playing a role, all right — the avuncular small-town folksy sheriff, a Brylcreemed aging Boy Scout who wouldn’t hesitate to use his gun. Yet he got you to believe in his belief in what he stood for. He stood for policies that liberals (including me) despised, yet as he beamed that sunny Scotch-Irish grin and spoke in that mellifluous radio cowboy voice, he also stood for conviction, and it was easy to admire that side him. To put it in showman terms: Reagan, in Hollywood, was a mediocre actor, but as a politician he was a great actor. He sold America on himself.
There’s a provocative moment in “The Reagan Show” where Reagan addresses the question of how he learned to draw, as president, on his acting skills, and he offers a revealing thought. He says that he often wonders how anyone could occupy the job of U.S. president without being an actor. It’s a point borne out by the fact that he was hardly the first. The politics of the new age of television were invented — or, rather, perfected — by John F. Kennedy, and if you want to hear acting that’s downright stentorian, just listen to FDR’s fireside chats. (Just listen to Churchill…or Hitler.) The union of national leadership and performance goes back a long way.
But the forces behind Reagan orchestrated his image with a newly sophisticated sense of controlled precision, turning him into the first pitchman for his own presidency. “The Reagan Show,” which has been assembled entirely out of archival footage by co-directors Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez, never quite gets a handle on how that was done. The film leaves out the vital history of Reagan’s transformation from screen star to politician; it leaves out the ingenious semiotic dirty tricks of Lee Atwater and Roger Stone; it leaves out the behind-the-scenes planning that went into the Reagan White House’s manipulation of the news media.
Yet the single oddest thing about “The Reagan Show” is that it conflates the superficiality of Reagan’s image mastery with his single greatest policy achievement. The second half of the film is devoted to the relationship that developed between Reagan and the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, beginning in 1985, the year of Gorbachev’s ascent. The drama that went on between these two men was, in its way, revolutionary, since Gorbachev looked with supreme distrust upon Reagan, who had spent his entire first term as the ultimate Cold War saber-rattler. He famously branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and on August 11, 1984, he made his infamous off-mic joke before his weekly radio address: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
That line, if you count it, is 147 characters long, and when the recording of Reagan saying it was leaked to the press, it became the closest that any previous president ever got to one of Donald Trump’s tweets. It seemed not just irresponsible but dangerous; liberals took it as a sign that Reagan, in his showbiz-gunslinger way, might have the bluster to blow up the world. Yet Reagan, within the realm of thermonuclear politics, turned out to be a saber-rattler with the heart of a dove. He openly despised nuclear weapons, an agenda that meshed with Gorbachev’s desire to remake the Soviet Union by winding down the fatal economics of the arms race. “The Reagan Show” tells the story of their bond, their statesman-bro partnership, their supremely counterintuitive dance.
But, of course, all of that could scarcely have less to do with “the Reagan show.” It was the one time that Reagan actually stuck out his neck and broke — heroically — with conservative dogma. (He got a great deal of pushback from the right.) To show us this, the movie doesn’t simply take a left turn (pun intended); essentially, it has to abandon its thesis. Yet in place of that thesis, “The Reagan Show” demonstrates something startling that it almost surely didn’t intend, and that is this: Held up next to the presidential politics of today, Ronald Reagan now looks like Abraham Lincoln.