Film & TV

How Reagan Used the Movies to His Advantage

Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan. (Pixabay)
The president and his wife applauded flag-wavers, sure, but also Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

After viewing WarGames, the 1983 Matthew Broderick thriller about an accidental nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union caused by rogue computers, Nancy Reagan asked, to a room full of viewers at Camp David, “Could that really happen?” Awkward silence ensued as the audience, which included President Reagan and several military officials, contemplated the near-annihilation of the world that Broderick’s character had narrowly averted by, among other tricks, jury-rigging a pay phone using a metal piece torn off the top of a soda can. “Yes, that could happen,” replied the president’s personal physician, Dan Ruge. “In fact, I’ve done it.” Pause. “I’ve used a ring top to make a call at a pay phone.” Cue relieved laughter.

The fatuous liberal caricature of Reagan was that he was a Hollywood simpleton who was frighteningly reductionist about a complex world. That view fell apart under scrutiny, but Reagan did understand how to use the movies’ cultural power for his own purposes, as former White House speechwriter Mark Weinberg illustrates in Movie Nights with the Reagans, a fond, gentle memoir of the 1980s and classic movies that the president and first lady viewed most weekends at the Aspen Lodge at Camp David.

WarGames left an impression on Ronald Reagan. It was just two days after screening it that the president pitched his missile-defense program to congressional Democrats, at one point putting aside his notes to talk about the movie and the possibility of an inadvertent missile strike. The media and Democrats reacted with derision, dubbing the idea “Star Wars,” but Reagan remained preoccupied with how to add more safeguards against catastrophic mistakes. When the Reagan-trolling movie The Day After, about a nuclear strike on the U.S. heartland, aired that November to an audience of more than 100 million viewers, he simply co-opted its message. “It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed,” Reagan said a month after it aired. “My own reaction was one of having to do all we can to have an effective deterrent to see that there is never a nuclear war.” Those who sought to use the movie in service of the then-growing nuclear-freeze movement were wrong-footed. Reagan was a black belt in pop-culture jiujitsu, redirecting its power to his advantage.

Most of the Hollywood offerings that attracted the president’s notice won’t surprise you: It’s one flag-waver after another, from Red Dawn (1984) to Rocky IV (1985) to Top Gun (1986). Red Dawn came with the added benefit of Al Haig’s imprimatur: The former secretary of state, who had left Washington in 1982, had since joined the board of the film’s studio, MGM/UA. Haig said the movie had “a clear lesson to all viewers, and that is the importance of American strength to protect the peace.” Two days after viewing it, in September 1984 as his reelection campaign was hitting full stride, Reagan sounded especially invigorated at a speech in Doylestown, Pa.: “Our country’s days of apologizing are over. America is standing tall again, and don’t let anyone tell you we’re any less dedicated to peace because we want a strong America.”

Sylvester Stallone tried to enlist the president in his publicity campaign for Rocky IV, which Reagan screened and liked. But when Stallone’s team suggested that the actor visit Washington to present the president with the gloves and robe Rocky wears in the film, a young White House lawyer — associate counsel John Roberts — nixed the plan. “With the Rambo comments and the White House dinner invitation, the president has already given Stallone more than his share of free publicity,” Roberts wrote, alluding to an approving quip that Reagan had made about the same year’s Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Reagan channeled the 1981 Oscar winner Chariots of Fire for his own purposes, citing its themes of Christian faith in a 1982 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Later, though, he alluded to it in a less expected way. In a 1988 speech at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, he mentioned how the Olympic athlete featured in the film, Eric Liddell, drew inspiration from the book of Isaiah: “They that wait upon the Lord shall increase their strength. . . . They shall run and not be weary.” Reagan put an American spin on Isaiah, calling his faith “our formula for completing our crusade for freedom . . . the strength of our civilization and our belief in the rights of humanity.”

Unlike President Nixon, the Reagans enjoyed an insider status in Hollywood that gave them some credibility when they spoke about culture.

The president and the first lady were less enamored with one of the first movies they saw at Camp David: 9 to 5, the feminist workplace comedy starring Dolly Parton that was the second-biggest hit of 1980 (after The Empire Strikes Back). A scene in which three female co-workers get high on marijuana struck Nancy Reagan as gratuitous, and she alluded to it a year later in her “Just Say No” speech about drugs: “A scene in a popular movie,” she said, showed friends who “get hilariously high on pot.” Such episodes helped foster “the notion of drug acceptability.” President Reagan was angry about the scene, too, and said so in his diary. Unlike President Nixon, the Reagans enjoyed an insider status in Hollywood that gave them some credibility when they spoke about culture (then–Nancy Davis was also a performer, at MGM, when the couple met).

The most stealthily Reagan-ish movie among the scores the president viewed at Camp David might have been the Republican John Hughes’s 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which Reagan loved and which was denounced by David Denby of New York magazine as “Hughes’s nauseating distillation of the slack, greedy side of Reaganism.” George Will praised it as “the moviest movie, the one most true to the general spirit of movies,” brushing off scolds who would complain that “Ferris is a symptom.” “Need you ask of what?” Will asked. “Of the self-absorption of youth corrupted by the complacency of the Reagan years.” The lawyer and actor Ben Stein, who memorably appeared in the movie, later said:

Ferris Bueller’s optimism was very representative of the era, and it was very very representative of who John Hughes was. He was an ardent Republican and extreme conservative. He believed Reagan could transform all of us into Ferris Buellers. Ferris was an artifact of a free era. Ronald Reagan was all about freedom. Ferris was an unregulated high school kid in an unregulated world. It was “morning in America,” and it was morning for Ferris.

Reagan laughed throughout when he saw the movie on June 21, 1986 — the day after he had two small polyps removed from his colon a year after a cancer scare in the same region. Reagan wrote in his diary that doctors told him, “My insides were twenty-five [years] younger than my age.” As he left the hospital, reporters asked how he was doing. “A-okay,” he said.

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