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HBO’s Reagan



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I watched most of HBO’s documentary on Reagan yesterday, and came away wondering why everyone cares so much about him. The chief aim of the piece, by its own characterization, was to demystify the former president. After watching it, I take that as documentarian-eze for “take down a notch or two.” 

The good: The film features our own Peter Robinson (though not nearly enough, by my measure — a few sound bites from a long and substantive interview). And the story of Reagan’s pre-presidential years is charming and engaging. 

But once focused on his years in office, the film offers little of substance to explain why Reagan is so revered. Instead, deficit spending, the AIDS epidemic, and Iran Contra got much of the attention The Hinckley assassination attempt is offered as an explanation for Reagan’s legislative success in lowering taxes. No doubt it played a role, but was it really that simple? Arthur Laffer is permitted to defend “Reaganomics,” but the film presents it as nothing more than “trickle-down” economics (or “Something-d-o-o economics,” as Ben Stein put it in another context). The film says little of the turnaround of the American economy from Carter’s “malaise” years, reined-in inflation and lowered interest rates, or any of the other significant domestic accomplishments of Reagan’s tenure. 

Peter is interviewed briefly about the famous “tear down this wall” speech, but I doubt much of what he said of the impact and importance of that speech was included in the film.  (Peter shares a brief amusing anecdote about how he had originally proposed a different formulation of that famous line, only to be told that it is best not to have the President proclaiming in a foreign tongue).   The film declines to credit Reagan with the later fall of the Berlin Wall, describing the truth as more “complicated.” 

So rather than demystifying President Reagan, the film comes off as a trite, myopic presentation of his presidency. If viewed by someone who knew nothing independently of Reagan, it would raise the question of why anyone would care. Various mainstream reviews I have read suggest that only the most ardent Reaganites would fail to see the film’s balanced presentation. I guess that makes me an ardent Reaganite.  

I would be curious to know whether others watched and whether I’m simply being too hypersensitive about it all.



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