Actors are lying all the time, projecting a made-up persona, yet you have to be able to look in their eyes and see something true. That paradoxical job description goes a long way toward explaining the actor-turned-politician phenomenon, and no actor was ever more politically successful than Ronald Reagan.
Eugene Jarecki’s incisive documentary is not an intimate personal history but a smart political biography that mines the contradictory forces that shaped both Reagan’s ideology and his huge, enduring influence. Called, simply enough, Reagan, the film begins its run tonight on HBO (straight from its premiere at Sundance).
Believe me, I wasn’t looking forward to two-hours on Reagan (yawn), but this is no flat-footed educational doc. Its artistry grabs you from the start, beginning with a wry black-and-white clip of Reagan in his TV-host days, saying that while most movies end with the villain defeated, he can’t promise that. Then it dramatically, colorfully cuts to a flag-draped coffin and Reagan’s funeral. In between, Reagan turns out to be not hero or villain, but this story’s fascinating, complex central character.
His son Ron Reagan, who has managed to be loyal while disagreeing politically, reflects the film’s attitude when he says his father was “smarter and better than many people on the left think he was, and less the giant that many people in the right think he was.” But Jarecki has a point of view: he means to pierce the Reagan myth without demonizing him.
He is remarkably good at drawing lines from Reagan’s early political influences to his presidency — the anti-Communist 50’s actor became the president who fought the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union -– and from his presidency to the conservative movement today. Using a wealth of archival footage and well-culled new interviews with Reagan admirers and debunkers, the film explores how a Democrat who became president of the Screen Actors Guild, whose own family was saved by New Deal aid during his Depression childhood, morphed into a Republican friend of big business and a crusader against liberalism.
Focusing on the paradoxes, Jarecki often reveals the dissonance between what Reagan said and what was actually happening. FBI files from the 50’s show that he was an informant (image below). Several experts, including his official biographer, Edmund Morris, say Reagan privately named Hollywood colleagues as Communists even while refusing to do it in public. As his son Ron points out, the evidence is troubling but the issue not entirely clear.
That murky duality echoes through the Iran-Contra scandal, when President Reagan flat-out said in an Oval Office speech that no arms had been traded for hostages. He later had to backtrack, trying to sell the country on his own innocence.
As journalist William Kleinknecht, author of The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan’s Betrayal of Main Street America, points out on-screen, Reagan is associated with small-town values and the middle class, yet in reality his political career was built by, and his policies benefitted, the rich. And the film draws a straight line from Reagan’s deregulation and fiscal policies, which George H.W. Bush so presciently called “voodoo economics” (talk about backtracking) to our own economic meltdown.
But Reagan wasn’t called “The Teflon president” for nothing, and his legacy as a homespun hero has lately grown to outsized proportions. In a startling soundbite from his days traveling the U.S. as a spokesman for GE, Reagan praises ordinary American people, saying they are “not, as the elitists would have it, the common man, they’re very uncommon.” The attack on “the elitists” couched as an embrace of everyday people echoes through the Tea Party today, but Reagan did it without anger or ugliness. The difference is more than rhetorical. Several commentators argue that Reagan was never as simplistic about government as his supposed heirs claim. Reagan-worship, Edmund Morris says, is “turning him into an icon for the convenience of the modern conservative movement.”
Jarecki (Why We Fight) is the rare documentarian who avoids fiery polemics, yet also realizes that being fair-minded does not mean being without a thought or opinion in your head. His intelligent film deserves to break through all the Reagan centennial chatter.