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« TIFF Launches $3m Campaign for Female Filmmakers | Main | Bogdanovich on Filmstruck »
Tuesday
Jul112017

Doc Corner: 'The Reagan Show'

Ronald Reagan was the most videoed President by the time he left office in 1989. As told to us in The Reagan Show, there was more video taken of Reagan than the five Presidents before him combined. Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s documentary is a compilation of this footage, taken by personal videographers as he filmed televised addresses, walked the grounds of the White House and attended events, as well as news footage from the era. Whether one agrees with the controversial President or not – and, fair admission, I do not – there’s something interesting in the cinematic trawling through this video content and through this film’s early passages, I was pleasantly enthralled by the backstage pass to an old Presidency.

However, the title “The Reagan Show” suggests something that the film ultimately does not deliver. Across its brief 75-minute runtime, The Reagan Show veers away from a broad path of general observation, and instead focuses almost exclusively on one subject...

The film looks at Reagan's interactions with Russian leader Mikhael Gorbachev, and his efforts to disarm Russia of nuclear weapons and bring about the end of the Cold War. The very concept of what it means to have a television be such a predominant fixture of a President’s tenure is dropped relatively early (and was done better in Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies), and there is nary a single mention of AIDS, his radical conservatism, or any of other policy elements he was the face of.

I guess it’s very of-the-moment to focus on this, although I wonder if Pettengill and Velez were being prescient about the current President’s eventual scandals with the Russians or if their narrative altered as a result of recent events? They certainly appear to have decided to have fun with their chosen narrative, with clip selections obviously aimed at drawing comparisons between Reagan and T**** including one particularly odious reference to making America great again and another where it is remarked that he enjoys making the press room look foolish, knowing the chaos distracts them from hard questions. “The guy is a PR genius” says one woman to a news camera, and much of the footage here doesn’t put that in much doubt.

And it’s true that it is impossible for The Reagan Show to not find goldmines among its treasure trove. A clip of Reagan reciting a speech advertisement campaigning for Senator John Sununu citing him as a “dear friend”, yet cannot even pronounce his name. A glimpse of Reagan’s meetings with Michael Jackson and Mr T are baffling. And a recurring joke about the one line of Russian that he knows builds to a moment when Gorbachev steals his thunder and his punch-line and is a moment of genuine delight. Fans of political television will likely also get a kick out of footage about his ill-advised “Star Wars” program.

Still, despite the enjoyment that can come from this – Reagan giving directorial hints for a commercial involving a chainsaw is truly bizarre – it can’t help but feel like somewhat of a missed opportunity. Much like Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, which told the personal side of Richard Nixon through old homemade videos, this documentary frustrates by being too wishy-washy about its subject. At times seemingly a glowing celebration of his achievements, at other times a comedy made up of his bumbling errors, The Reagan Show never finds a personality of its own amid the footage.

Reagan, it can easily be said, had personality for days. It’s easy to see why he was so popular. But by not focusing on what made him such a divisive President (you would hardly know this from watching this film) and one worth making a movie about in the first place strips the final product of drama. And to do this in 2017 when his particular brand of conservative patriot politics is back in the national spotlight feels particularly short-sighted. The footage is often wonderful, but all the goofy footage of the President flubbing names and playing dumb with reporters is just window dressing to a fairly shallow history lesson that should have dug deeper. The Reagan Show is ultimately a disappointment for reasons far beyond any sort of political bias one may bring to it.

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Reader Comments (3)

Controversial? Not in my neck of the woods. But I'm just a lonely conservative on this site.

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTodd

Todd, he was actually controversial in conservative circles, too. At least when it came to some of his Russia policies. But this was before party lines became so separated that being a party member meant going along with seemingly everything their leader does or says.

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Yes, Todd. A president who let thousands of gay men die before even addressing the problem in public is seen as "controversial." Even his supporters are aware of this if they don't have their heads in the sand.

July 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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