“How could you do the job if you hadn’t been an actor?” is what Ronald Reagan claims he often wondered (when asked by David Brinkley if anything he learned as a thesp was applicable to the presidency) in a telling clip from the start of Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s engrossing The Reagan Show, an all-archival doc from CNN Films that hits theaters in NYC and LA on June 30th (and on VOD, appropriately enough, July 4th).
An editing tour de force, the film is crafted entirely from 80s network newscasts and “White House Television” – what the Reagan administration dubbed its recordings of all the president’s daily activities – alongside clips from many of the 53 Hollywood movies Reagan acted in prior to his presidency. Indeed, there was quite a bit of stage-managed history for the filmmakers to choose from. As a title card notes, the Gipper’s team “used film and video five times as much as all previous administrations combined.” Which left Ted Koppel to ponder whether that shining city on the hill would be real or a “vacant Hollywood set?”
Yes, it seems the past is never past – it’s merely plagiarized. With all the overwrought comparisons of Trump to Nixon, The Reagan Show makes a compelling case for why our current commander-in-chief has actually shamelessly lifted the entire Reagan playbook. (Beginning with a scene of Reagan addressing the AFL-CIO with “Together we’ll make America great again.”)
In fact, the simplistic Trump to Nixon equivalency can be as misleading as the laudatory matching of Obama to Reagan. And to this end, Velez and Pettengill’s doc provides a trove of evidence. (In other words, it meets the bar set by Reagan’s ridiculously overused Russian proverb, “Doveryai, no proveryai. Trust, but verify.”)
Look no further than when deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver sits down for an interview with Barbara Walters and admits that politics is all about “how you stage the message.” “It’s a game, Barbara,” he adds with condescending amusement. (Indeed, Reagan, we learn, spent two-thirds of his time in the Oval Office on public relations!) Then there’s Sam Donaldson lamenting on air that the president lives in a world of “Reader’s Digest and Norman Rockwell” nostalgia, rather than in present-day reality. (Whether Trump himself actually does so is irrelevant, as it’s good for the MAGA brand.)
And The Reagan Show also offers a much-needed reminder that the Gipp was often as inconsistent as number 45, putting public opinion over any conservative ideology. First Reagan pursued his comically doomed “Star Wars” defense initiative (the 80s version of the border wall), ramping up the arms race, only to do a complete 180 and hold an arms summit with Gorbachev in Geneva – after the masses vehemently turned on him. (Though Reagan’s aside about Gorbachev, “We disagreed but we weren’t disagreeable,” certainly diverges from Trump’s public MO. As does his response to a reporter’s shouted query of “Are you optimistic?” in Reykjavik, at the subsequent summit with his Soviet counterpart. “I’m always optimistic,” he snaps back with scripted timing.)
True, unlike today’s bumbler-in-chief, Reagan was all style in front of the camera, even in the absence of any profound substance. Yet he was also a master at avoiding the mainstream press – and its questions – by creating “chaos” (as one reporter notes). “No presidency before this one was so judged as if it were a performing art,” Peter Jennings decries near the end – after silly footage of Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless the USA” next to Ronnie and Nancy (at the RNC in ’88 for Bush) plays across the screen. Jennings adds that he “shudders” when thinking that politicians post Reagan will now have to succeed first in television. He couldn’t have imagined the nonfiction drama five presidents down the line would bring.
The Reagan Show opens in New York and Los Angeles on 30 June and will be available nationally shortly thereafter, and via VOD on 4 July.
Still courtesy The Reagan Show.