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That’s what’s been done in recent political history with Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, whose legacy and place in history has been elevated to mythological status.
In his writings, Tom Brokaw has posited that there were two great U.S. presidents in the 20th century: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Reagan. In this probing and fascinating HBO documentary, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki impressively distinguishes Reagan the man from Reagan the myth. With its astute political and psychological observations, it will impress both sides of the political aisle.
No president had been more aware of the power of image than Reagan, whose rise to international political icon from humble Midwestern beginnings is itself, the stuffings of the American Dream.
Like many of the successful children of alcoholics, Reagan had the cheery temperament to focus on the good rather than the failures. Early in life, he channeled his lifeguard looks, congeniality and drive into early success as a Midwestern sportscaster. His colorful play-by-plays won him a job with the Cubs who trained on Santa Catalina where Reagan was cajoled by a former girlfriend to audition for Warner Bros.
In this comprehensive and illuminating documentary, filmmmaker Jarecki catches the sweep of Reagan’s remarkable life, and, most sagely, his genius for making difficult transitions. When his acting career foundered following World War II, he turned to corporate spokesman, where his clean-cut looks lent perfectly to the powerful new phenomenon of TV commercials. In this incisive document, we see Reagan’s inspiring metamorphosis as spokesman for corporate giant GE: Traveling from plant to plant, he delivered what was to be called “The Speech,” the encapsulation of his political and personal beliefs. These travels also enabled him to connect and empathize with working-class GE employees. Indeed, his political success was buttressed by blue-collar support and anti-Eastern intellectual fervor.
Throughout this splendid portrait, Jarecki, kindly but keenly shows that for every excellency that there is an accompanying downside. His chronological and comprehensive presentation of Reagan’s ascendant career presents starkly the contradictions of a man who responded to individual calamity but could not comprehend the hardships of millions. We see Reagan as a man of little introspection but deep paradoxes.
The film offers a wide and varied array of commentators, including Reagan’s son Ron, who offers, perhaps, the deepest insights into his father’s generous but hard nature. Although the film includes a plethora of anecdotal insights from powerful figures — Pat Buchanan, Reagan’s official biographer Edmund Morris, economist Arthur Laffer, as well as Middle-Americans, it is no mere talking-heads account.
Reagan delineates the great triumphs of this quintessential American and energizes with his most enduring pronouncements: His assertion during the Cold War that Communism was merely an aberration that would end up in the “ash heap of history,” a truth that was ridiculed by the academic elite of the time. It also captures Reagan’s re-invigoration of the American spirit following the malaise of the Carter years.
On the downside, Reagan also probes into his administration’s horrific and illegal dishonor of Iran-Contra, as well as his blind eye to such calamities as the
AIDS epidemic of the ’80s.
Reaganis truly a masterwork, told with flair and intelligence. Credit Jarecki and his talented production team. Editor Simon Barkerenergizes the pacing with his zesty and often witty cuts, while Robert Miller’smusic, with its frothy ear for Americana, is an apt and fitting accompaniment.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres
Production: HBO Documentary Films presents a Charlotte Street Film in association with BBC Storyville
Director-screenwriter: Eugene Jarecki
Producers: Eugene Jarecki, Kathleen Fournier
Executive producers: Nick Fraser, Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Etienne Sauret
Music: Robert Miller
Editor: Simon Barker
No rating, 112 minutes
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