The Reagan Show (★★, cert PG) is an odd little documentary. Coming in at a spritely one hour and 15 minutes, it tells the story of Ronald Reagan’s presidency through a collage of archive clips, many of them culled from behind-the-scenes footage shot by the president’s team. Directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill choose not to use voiceover or interviews, instead relying on captions and contemporaneous news footage to contextualise the action.
We are shown numerous different versions of this Hollywood leading man-turned-president. From the consummate performer (riding horses through the woods, laughing off questions from eager hacks at a charity event) to the slightly doddery guy behind the stage-managed public persona, cheerfully struggling through the recording of a video message in support of a politician whose name he can’t pronounce.
As these initial scene-setters fade away the focus falls on Regan’s diplomatic entanglements with the Soviet Union. We see him as the pressure cranks up over the proposed “Star Wars” programme and the subsequent negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev aimed at bringing an end to the Cold War nuclear arms race. Reagan appears by turns defiant and defeated, panic-stricken and punchy.
Early on, we are told that the decision by the Reagan administration to film so much candid footage was something of a first for a sitting president. Towards the end of the documentary, this idea of him as a commander-in-chief for the reality TV age before that was even a thing is hammered home by a short speech made by a news anchor. The presenter says that Reagan’s presidency, more than any before it, “is a presidency judged as performing art”. He adds, gravely: “I shudder when it’s suggested that presidents that come after him are going to have to succeed first on television.”
This is a neat little find by the directors and certainly has a prophetic quality, but the film it’s couched in, despite its access to insider footage, doesn’t make a strong enough argument in support of its central thesis. Was Reagan really a media-savvy trailblazer? The film is far too slight to answer that question convincingly. If US politics is your thing, dig out Errol Morris’s The Fog War instead. In a series of interviews with Robert S McNamara, JFK and Lyndon B Johnson’s defence secretary, Morris demonstrates exactly how a documentary can get under the skin of a presidency.
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