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Review: In ‘The Reagan Show,’ No Grenada but Lots of the Arms Race


From left, George H.W. Bush, President Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the documentary “The Reagan Show.”

Gravitas Ventures and CNN Films

For anyone (like this critic) who came of age in the 1980s, “The Reagan Show” will be like a quick trip through a time warp. It all seems so long ago, and yet it also feels as if it were happening right now. The television journalists with their trench coats and stentorian inflections. The president on horseback. “Evil Empire.” “Trust, but verify.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

But for viewers seeking either to refresh their memories of, or to learn something new about, the 40th president, this documentary, directed by Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez and made up of ’80s-vintage archival video, will prove puzzling and unsatisfying. It dwells, as people often did back then, on the remarkable fact that Reagan had been an actor in Hollywood, but it does not chronicle the path that took him from the movies to the California governor’s mansion on his way to the White House.


Trailer: ‘The Reagan Show’

A preview of the film.

By GRAVITAS VENTURES on Publish Date June 29, 2017.

Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.

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Nor does it deal with his campaigns, or with his role in the ideological transformation of American politics. Domestic policy is all but invisible. There is nothing about tax cuts, supply-side economics, the air traffic controllers’ strike, AIDS or the Supreme Court. No Grenada, no El Salvador, no Lebanon. The Iran-contra scandal gets a bit of attention, but only as a sidebar to the film’s main preoccupation, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

That is a great and consequential story, of course, and focusing on it saves “The Reagan Show” from triviality. The improbable diplomatic bromance between Reagan, an unbending anti-Communist, and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the reform-minded general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, yielded many memorable moments on the public stage. Their negotiation of an arms treaty also provides a rare and encouraging example of successful peacemaking between rival countries. While thin on strategic or historical analysis, the film does provide a glimpse at the characters of the two leaders.

Reagan himself, though, remains something of a cipher. What you see in these videos, many of them recorded as part of a novel administration initiative called “White House TV,” is mostly what you might remember or expect. The president seems like an affable, charming man, at once comfortable in his own skin and oddly detached from his surroundings, with a ready supply of quips, quotations and anecdotes to defuse whatever tension or discomfort might be hovering in the air. If you were predisposed to hate him, you might be surprised to feel a twinge of affection. If you already admired him, you may want a more robust hagiography.

But, in any case, you will have to go elsewhere to assess the consequences of his style of leadership, and of the movement he helped bring to power. There are many fine books, of course, and a brilliant essay by Joan Didion. The rhetorical questions posed by earnest talking heads of the era have been rendered moot by history, but Reagan’s legacy remains a live and contentious issue. His name is still routinely invoked, on the left and the right, with reverence and rage. “The Reagan Show” helps attach a face to the name, but it doesn’t accomplish much more than that.

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