Reagan debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
A couple of years ago, I read a fascinating book about Ronald Reagan’s evolution as a Cold Warrior, from his kill ‘em all hawkishness in the ‘70s and early ‘80s to the arms-reduction mission that had the same right-wingers who now idolize Reagan calling him a traitor to their cause. James Mann’s The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan is full of vivid and astonishing detail about off-the-record backroom deals and soul-searching, and overall paints Reagan as a far more nuanced figure than the stubborn platitudineer I’d pegged him as in my knee-jerk teenage years, back when I was a not-as-clever-as-I-thought-I-was doofus who wore a homemade button that read “American Glasnost Now!” I wouldn’t say that Mann’s book made me a fan of Reagan exactly. (I don’t want to get too deep into my current political orientation, but I will confess that it can’t aptly be described as “Reaganite.”) Still, The Rebellion Of Ronald Reagan did serve as a welcome reminder that nothing in American politics is as cut-and-dried as the pundits make it out to be, and that a lot of time politicians who seem like outright villains are just making decisions based on information we don’t have and convictions we don’t share.
I know it’s unrealistic to expect a 105-minute documentary that covers Reagan’s entire life to be as rich as a 400-page book about one aspect of that life, but still, Eugene Jarecki’s Reagan offers little information about or analysis of its subject that couldn’t be gleaned from 15 minutes on Wikipedia. Jarecki hits the high points, starting with Reagan’s Depression-era boyhood in Illinois, where he lived with an abusive father and a family that survived thanks to government assistance. (Reagan’s son Ron also notes that his dad was a lifeguard, which may have fed his need to be both a champion and an authority figure.) The film breezes on through Reagan’s years as a radio announcer, a second-tier Hollywood star, a union leader, a corporate spokesperson, and finally, a politician. Reagan covers its subject’s conversion from Democrat to Republican—spurred by his encounters with hardcore leftists in SAG—and it shows how he built a reputation in his early political career as an angry firebrand ready to stand up to commies and hippies alike. Jarecki also focuses on how the successes of Regan’s White House years came with trade-offs: skyrocketing corporate profits measured against growing economic disparity, and a renewal of freedom in the Eastern Bloc coming while the administration was subverting the constitution at home and funneling money and arms to terrorists and dictators abroad.
The documentary is assembled well, with lots of footage—some of it rare—from Reagan’s acting and political careers. Of particular interest are the excerpts from Reagan’s stump-speeches for General Electric, which he honed over the years into an inspiring expression of what makes American capitalism great, then modified for a televised endorsement of Barry Goldwater that turned Reagan into a national political star. Contrast that with the film and video from Reagan’s years as the governor of California, where he came off less as an inspirational figure and more as a dangerous hothead, overwhelmed and irritated by the demands of the state’s many young activists. (People sometimes forget that before Reagan became the avuncular figure remembered so fondly by so many, he had two unsuccessful presidential runs that failed in large part because he was widely viewed as a right-wing nut who would likely start World War III.) Contrast that, again, with Reagan in the White House, where he more than once delivered Oval Office speeches apologizing for mistakes made by his administration. He wasn’t a humbled man, exactly, but neither was he as self-righteous and intractable as he had been a decade before.
Jarecki also hears from an impressive slate of interviewees, including not just Reagan’s sons but several of his speechwriters, advisers, and critics. In a way though that’s the problem with the movie: Reagan gathers too many voices, with no clear perspective. It’s clear that Jarecki comes down more in opposition to Ronald Reagan than he does in favor, and he stacks the deck with commentators who lay out what they feel Reagan did wrong. But again, all the commentators—including the ones who think of Reagan as an American hero—offer mainly removed, outsider’s perspectives. Where’s the story we’ve never heard before, or the analysis that explains why and how Reagan changed over the years? I wish Jarecki had attempted to shape all these scattered incidents from Reagan's life, both positive and negative, into more of an assessment. The viewer could agree or disagree with that assessment, but at least we’d have something to grapple with. Semi-objective was the wrong way to go here.
Reagan perks up late, when Jarecki compares the “what Ronald Reagan stood for” myths of contemporary conservatives with Reagan’s actual policies and speeches. The film develops an actual point-of-view toward the end, as Jarecki asserts that whether people love this man or hate this man, they should at least fairly represent who he was. Otherwise though, this Reagan is pretty much just “Reagan’s Greatest Hits”—Iran-Contra, the Berlin Wall speech, et cetera—with not enough deep cuts. To paraphrase Reagan himself: Where’s the rest of him?