Although I was born during the Reagan Administration, much of it remains nothing more than a fuzzy memory stitched together from archival news footage over the years. But Reagan’s presidency created a lasting legacy, one still being felt today in 2017, as Reagan became the first president to harness technological advances and introduce cameras into the White House in a way never done before. Sure, Nixon was paranoid and recorded everything but Reagan, the consummate actor, taped it all.
The Reagan Show explores this legacy utilizing nothing but archival footage - nightly news footage, interviews with pundits and politicians and outtakes of everything being recorded inside and around the White House at the time. The documentary’s opening will feel eerily familiar, reminding the audience of the cyclical nature of history. Here was a Hollywood actor playing President, meticulously staging every aspect of his day to day appearances. We see Reagan waiting for a cue to begin walking down the corridor for cameras to snap a staged photo, we see outtakes of speeches where action is called as if it is nothing more than a scene from a film. We see Reagan being asked if it was harder being an actor or a President and him chuckling and agreeing both are a role to play but as President you also must write the script.
Perhaps most surprising for those of us not alive at the time or not fully cognizant of that Administration is how much it parallels everything being said today. We hear Reagan giving a speech where he promises to “Make America Great Again,” we see the looming specter of his Hollywood past fusing itself into his political image - Reagan, the rough and tumble cowboy actor from the film Law and Order used this image to turn himself into a “law and order” president. We hear about how the business of Reagan’s administration was PR, how he spent most of his early days in office on vacation. Sound familiar?
This isn’t to diminish or normalize the things we see in today’s Administration, many of which raise important red flags that need to be discussed and pushed back against. But it is interesting to see, and not just hear about, the direct line between the showmanship of the first actor turned president and the current reality TV star in the White House.
The first half of The Reagan Show sets the stage for what is to come, a showdown with Russia over nuclear weapons. Here we see the cracks in the facade, as Reagan was outmaneuvered by a highly politically savvy Mikhail Gorbachev. The bulk of the film then explores their relationship through the camera lens, with Reagan constantly touting his Russian proverb to “trust, but verify,” giving the public easy, bite-sized and memorable catchphrases to latch onto rather than substantial progress or policy. When Reagan lands in Moscow towards the end of his presidency and is asked about his former comments on Russia being evil, he shrugs it off saying it was a different time and era and focuses instead on the front-page worthy photo-op with Gorbachev.
The Reagan Show shows us how the office of the President has changed over the years and how Reagan contributed to that. But it is by no means an all-encompassing look at Reagan’s eight years in the White House, there is barely a mention of the disastrous War on Drugs, the Administration’s egregious response to the AIDS crisis and the Iran-Contra Affair is brought up briefly to show how in many ways all Reagan had was his reputation and his ability to charm the public and how the scandal really damaged this. But in true Hollywood fashion, Reagan staged his own big third act for his final year in office: a quotable demand for the Berlin Wall to be taken down. It’s a fascinating look at the stage management of a presidency and a reminder that much of what we see on tv, even in politics, is fabricated for consumption.