The Reagan Show

A treasure trove of archive footage, all about the ‘Star Wars’ President, Ronald Reagan? An opportunity too good to miss.

Filmmakers Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez have explored thousands of hours of material from White House TV, filmed during his tenure by the President’s own teams; retrieved news footage, and a few clips from Reagan’s old Hollywood movies. From this, they have assembled a 75-minute compilation of some of the President’s big and less big moments, and set it to music, a score by Laura Karpman as well passages from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. There is no commentary, only intertitle cards charting key moments.

The Reagan Show brings to mind two excellent documentaries by the filmmaker Brian Springer, Feed (1992) and Spin (1995). Springer had gathered extensive satellite newsfeed material, including outtakes from before and after major media interviews, unguarded moments which edited together created fascinating and revealing insights into politicians’ minds, their interactions with the press, and the manufacturing of news. The Reagan Show however adopts a different approach. There is no commentary or explicit analysis, and no clear line of reasoning. Inference – on the part of the viewer – is all. The conclusions that may be drawn, depend entirely on the viewer’s prior knowledge – historical knowledge, and understanding of media processes.

Reagan was elected in 1981, following on from Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and served two terms. He left office in 1989, with high popularity levels. A former trade unionist, one-time Democrat, and in due course Governor of California (as a Republican), his time in office was characterised by a staunchly Republican agenda, supply-side economic policy, ignoring a major public health crisis (HIV/AIDS), and an aggressive approach to foreign policy. This included the escalation of the Cold War, up to 1985, the Iran-Contra Affair, and the invasion of Grenada. This documentary however narrows its scope. Past a sequence showing Reagan in old Hollywood films, and an exposition of his Strategic Defence Initiative – ‘Star Wars’, the film’s main focus is the stage-managed media reporting of Reagan and Gorbachev’s relationship.

The rapprochement between the US and the USSR is one of the defining moments of Reagan’s presidency and reasonably a key topic in The Reagan Show. It seems so normal now to see The Brandenburg Gate in all its glory – the archive footage in the film shows how it was not so long ago, almost yesterday: Reagan giving a speech in Berlin; in the distance, a dull Brandenburg Gate, dilapidated buildings behind, border blocks in front. Europe has changed in ways that were unimaginable in the early 1980s, and Reagan was part of that, even though his share of the credit for this is arguable.

The Reagan Show’s footage selection gives some insight into how the press was managed by the White House, and how Reagan’s public image was crafted. Reagan had been exceptionally good at presenting himself with warmth and amiability; he appeared to be reassuring – or at least until he started to falter and appear forgetful, especially later in his tenure.

These are not, however, revelations. Previous incumbents, like John F Kennedy, had also been masters at shaping their public persona – while likely having far more skeletons in their cupboard than had Reagan. And previous incumbents had also stumbled, and learnt that media management is the way to reach, and stay in, the White House.
While it will be a pleasure for those who remember the Reagan years to revisit this collection of visual memories, it would be difficult for new generations to derive any substantial understanding of the man, or his impact.

The Reagan Show does not provide enough substance for audiences to understand how Reagan distinguished himself from other leaders, in terms of image management and news manufacturing. Reagan had already been so mediatised in his own time, that researchers would now be hard-pressed to dig up anything that beats Reagan’s best-known blooper. By way of a mike test for a radio programme, in 1984, he had quipped: ‘My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.’

Directors: Sierra Pettengill, Pacho Velez
Features: Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Raissa Gorbachev, George Bush, Barbara Bush, Connie Chung, Joe Biden, George Stephanopoulos, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw
Screenplay: Josh Alexander, Pacho Velez
Editors: Francisco Bello, Daniel Garber, David Barker
Music: Laura Karpman

Originally published on Screenwords, September 2017