To believe, in the 1980s, that Ronald Reagan was going to blow up the world may have been merely peculiar. To believe so today is a symptom of raging Reagan Derangement Syndrome. And yet here we are, with The Reagan Show, a new documentary rehashing the paranoid style of Reaganography, set for limited theatrical release on June 30 and video-on-demand release shortly thereafter.
The continuing popularity of President Reagan is a source of profound irritation and unease to liberals. To assuage their pain, they have gone back to their initial rationalization for how Reagan became so beloved: He cheated. Though a lousy actor, he nonetheless fooled the common man with his mesmeric performing skills. It’s the old false-consciousness story: If we liked the man, trickery must have been involved.
The point was made at great and boring length throughout Reagan’s presidency, and it is made all over again in The Reagan Show, which begins with the man himself talking to TV journalist David Brinkley about how being an actor informed his political career. “There have been times in this office,” he says, “when I wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” This is meant to be taken as a damning indictment — Aha! Reagan himself admitted he was just playing a part! — but in reality it just indicates the historic illiteracy of the film’s directors, Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez.
How many times did we hear — always in awestruck tones — about the “movie-star charisma,” the “glamour,” and the “style” that President Kennedy’s administration so assiduously crafted? For that matter, even before TV existed, Franklin Roosevelt famously stage-managed his image to hide his disability. Press photographers almost without exception colluded with FDR’s staffers to keep unflattering images of him in his frail state out of the newspapers. Image management is part of the job of any administration, but it’s only a scandal when Republicans do it.
Consisting entirely of archival footage from the Reagan era and before, the remainder of The Reagan Show is an exercise in snark that seems aimed at Baby Boomers still pining for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. White House film crews collected huge quantities of footage of Reagan in artfully arranged settings, but the directors of this film are more interested in the bloopers and the meta-footage — images of image-makers, snippets from before and after the main event that show cameramen scuttling around, White House aides getting exactly the angles they want, Reagan ad-libbing a joke after the director yells, “Cut!” The clips tend to be set off with either comical music (meant to build a case that Reagan was a thoughtless, frivolous empty suit) or ominous tones (suggesting Reagan was a creep well aware he was damaging the country). But Reagan was always performing, so there aren’t a lot of gotcha moments. About the best the filmmakers can do is show him forced to reshoot a commercial endorsing John Sununu for governor of New Hampshire because he initially placed the accent on the wrong syllable.
Intended to be a document of Reagan’s shallowness, the film instead unintentionally reveals the hostility of such anchormen as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather, shown in news clips. It should surprise no one that breathless media hysteria about Republican presidents long predates the political career of Donald Trump. The newscasters are seen blatantly editorializing about Reagan’s alleged weaknesses: Sam Donaldson says Reagan is locked in a fantasy that’s “not the real world today” and avers that “imprecision of language for Ronald Reagan is nothing new.” At a press conference, Donaldson yells out, “Your credibility has been severely damaged — can you repair it?” Comically, as Reagan inches closer to an arms-reduction deal with Mikhail Gorbachev, an unseen TV reporter — it sounds like Andrea Mitchell — makes a bid to outflank him on the right: “Veterans of past summits worry that President Reagan may be too taken with Mikhail Gorbachev the man and not guarded enough against Gorbachev the dedicated Communist,” she tells us solemnly, making an improbable effort to sound like the Curtis LeMay of NBC News.
Reagan had exactly the right approach to all of this: pointed mockery. After his initial Geneva summit with Gorbachev, he told Congress, “There were over 3,000 reporters in Geneva, so it’s possible there will be 3,000 different opinions of what happened. Maybe it’s the old broadcaster in me, but I decided to file my own report directly to you.” Big laughs. America trusted him.
And it drove the media crazy. At a moment in which the cultural mandarins eagerly participated in hyping the threat Reagan supposedly posed — the 1983 TV movie The Day After, about life after a nuclear strike, was seen by 100 million Americans — newscasters gravely promoted pseudo-events such as a move by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to push the hands of the Doomsday Clock a minute closer to midnight. Meanwhile they ridiculed Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as “Star Wars,” the dangerous fantasy of a bellicose cowboy.
It’s almost as if the directors of The Reagan Show are, like the characters in The Americans, still mired in the mid 1980s, unaware how all of this turned out. Reagan not only didn’t start a nuclear war, he achieved victory against the Soviets without firing a shot, and his SDI idea turned out not to be a pipe dream. Late in the film, the directors make one more feeble effort to tarnish the Reagan legacy by invoking the Iran-Contra affair of 1986, which despite a monumental effort by the media to whip up another Watergate did not permanently damage Reagan and now stands mostly forgotten. In February, according to a Harris Poll, Americans declared Reagan the greatest president since World War II, as they did in similar polls taken in 2008, 2010, and 2012. The media lost. The Gipper won.