'The Reagan Show': Film Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
An irony-laced view of the Reagan years and the birth of made-for-TV governing.
6/30/2017

The Reagan administration's own video productions are sliced and diced for Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill's wry new essay film.

According to Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill's The Reagan Show, the administration of America's first entertainer-turned-president shot more film and video than the previous five administrations combined. Harvesting both bloopers and well-rehearsed sound bites, the two comb through this massive trove in a documentary composed entirely of vintage source material, letting the era speak for itself and the "Great Communicator" show, oddly, both more and less of himself than intended. The film will be a peculiar artifact in its likely limited art house run, both quaint and full of painful reminders of our current Bedtime for Bonzo moment.

The doc starts off as if intending to highlight the strangeness of this presidency and to further the impression that it was more show than substance: We observe Oval Office visits by Michael Jackson and Mr. T; we see unused takes for a campaign endorsement in which Reagan claims to be a friend of New Hampshire politician John Sununu, but doesn't know how to pronounce his name. Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver is seen describing White House public relations as "a game" in which the challenge is to "stage the message."

But this Show soon finds what will be its main plotline, Reagan's handling of America-U.S.S.R. relations. It shows the hokey 1983 graphics with which Reagan introduced his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars"), which promised to shoot down any nuclear warheads the Russians might send our way; it then offers a clip of The Day After, an influential TV movie that imagined nuclear war in graphic terms.

Reagan is forced to give up his "evil empire" shtick with the arrival of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who proves a savvy media figure in his own right. The two meet for a summit in Geneva, and while they make no agreement on nuclear arms reduction, they get the ball rolling.

Incorporating not only White House-produced footage but a great deal of outside news and commentary, the film suggests that Gorbachev's reserved charm began to threaten Reagan; when repeated meetings failed to generate an agreement (and the Iran-Contra scandal, mentioned here just briefly, threatened the president's popularity), Reagan tried to reclaim the high ground by standing in front of the Berlin Wall and loudly insisting that Gorbachev should tear it down.

Footage from 1988 shows something that's hard to believe, given how he has been lionized by so-called conservatives over the passing decades: Reagan drew plenty of heat from the right as he worked to sell Congress on the INF Treaty. Despite their Russophobia, Reagan did manage to get that ratified in May — in plenty of time for Republicans to get back on the Gipper's side for the party's August national convention, tearing up with Lee Greenwood and singing "God Bless the U.S.A."

Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Directors: Pacho Velez, Sierra Pettengill
Screenwriters: Josh Alexander, Pacho Velez, Francisco Bello
Producer: Sierra Pettengill
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Amy Entelis, Houston King
Editors: Francisco Bello, Daniel Garber, David Barker
Composer: Laura Karpman
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

74 minutes

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