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By the time Showtime’s The Reagans debuts, it will be fewer than two weeks out from a presidential election unlike any other, and more than three decades since the documentary’s subjects vacated the Oval Office. Surprisingly, then, director Matt Tyrnauer spends little to no time arguing for the relevance of his four-part series, a well-trod overview of the lives of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, from Hollywood to Sacramento to the White House.
“If you are not a good actor, you cannot be a good president,” journalist Lesley Stahl recalls Reagan himself saying in one of the doc’s many interviews. It’s hardly an original sentiment; the adage “politics is show business for ugly people” had been around for decades before the Trump administration rendered it somehow even truer. But the first hour of The Reagans wearyingly elaborates on this hackneyed comparison between Hollywood and D.C., at the expense of, say, insight into what personal forces fueled its central couple, or context for what led 1960s California to elect a washed-up B-movie star to the Governor’s Mansion (which the state would do again a generation later with Arnold Schwarzenegger).
AIR DATE Nov 15, 2020
The later chapters cover Reagan’s abysmal records on race, income inequality, AIDS and student protests, as well as the lack of compassion and intellectual curiosity that exacerbated those crises. Tyrnauer — who helmed 2019’s Where’s My Roy Cohn? and 2018’s Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood — doesn’t shy from biting critiques, but the documentary remains frustratingly superficial and unsatisfying. It’s not quite an illuminating study of a marriage, nor a comprehensive history lesson. It flits through the lenses of cultural analysis, political assessment, even gossipy dishiness (with the Reagans’ favorite astrologer getting more screen time than chief of staff Don Regan) — and fully delivers on none.
An assemblage of archival footage and talking heads, The Reagans is certainly more pointed and zippily edited than if it had run on, say, PBS. But there’s little here that isn’t conventional progressive history, even if some of the minor details retain their power to shock. I already knew, for example, that Nancy was pilloried for her Marie Antoinette-like aloofness and profligacy as first lady. But it was news to me that china sets that cost $1,000 per person arrived at the White House on the same day that Reagan’s $1 billion cuts to the school-lunch program necessitated the government to reclassify ketchup a vegetable to skirt around nutritional standards.
Tyrnauer succeeds in illustrating familiar concepts like the Southern strategy and racial dogwhistles, but his criticisms of Reagan’s presidency never quite cohere into definitive (let alone fresh) “take” on the conservative icon. The documentary only offers a quick gloss on historical forces like the Cold War and the rise of the religious right in situating its subject. There’s no meaningful contextualization of Reagan among other presidents, nor much about his political legacy.
The doc rightly notes that Reagan’s father and brother survived the Great Depression thanks to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs — a fact that didn’t keep the Republican politician from gutting social programs for the needy and vulnerable once he himself got into the White House. But Tyrnauer barely touches upon this hypocrisy — and offers even less psychological insight into how Reagan justified his decisions to himself.
But The Reagans’ biggest letdown is what little sense we get of Ron and Nancy outside of their careers. Even their marriage is something of a black box, despite the presumed focus on the couple as a symbiotic pair and Reagan Jr.’s participation in the documentary. (“They were scared of the Beatles, for God’s sake,” recalls the son in one of the few glimpses into the Reagans’ domestic life.) Tyrnauer lets his interviewees make provocative assertions about the marriage — that Reagan wouldn’t have become the politician that he was without his Lady Macbeth, and that she had more influence over policy after the onset of his dementia — without the elaboration needed to flesh out those believable but detail-demanding claims. Unfortunately, that’s of a piece with the disappointing shallowness of the rest of the doc, which drifts instead of diving in.
Premieres Sunday, Nov. 15, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime
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