I’ve never understood the popularity surrounding Reagan because I’ve never known too much about him. I know that conservatives love the guy. When I mentioned in my Hot Tub Time Machine review that the movie cracks a joke at Ronald Reagan’s expense, an angry commenter noted that he refused to see the flick solely on that basis. With the exception of Jesus, Reagan is the only person a conservative politician must love unconditionally. Conservatives have built a mythology around the man to the point where Grover Norquist has a foundation dedicated to naming things after our 40th President. Eugene Jarecki’s documentary Reagan does a good job of not only demystifying Reagn’s life and explaining why it’s been so easy to build a myth around it.
If you’re a high school history teacher and you need a day where you want to show a movie in class, I highly recommend showing Reagan to your students. It not only hits all of the major beats of Ronald Reagan’s life but does so in an entertaining way. Jarecki crafts a lively documentary with a wry sense of humor. It was undoubtedly a daunting task to find so much footage in addition to all the interviews and other research required. Jarecki manages to blend all the clips together in a way that knows when the poke fun at Reagan’s legacy and when to respect it.
However, the final result is a movie that only goes through the greatest hits in Reagan’s life. I did learn a few cool new facts about Reagan. For example, I didn’t know he was originally a liberal but became a conservative due to his resentment of communists and hippies. Jarecki never provides an argument as to why Reagan, whose father was an alcoholic, was so pro-authority and so thoroughly despised communism. Whatever the reason for his political ideology, Reagan transformed the conservative movement through sheer force of his personality and was able to get working-class Americans to vote against their own welfare.
It’s crafting of Reagan’s image that provides the subtext of the documentary. Jarecki astutely observes that America had finally come of age in television-based politics and it was only natural that a former actor and General Electric pitchman would become their hero. He had the ability to tap into people’s emotions rather than their higher reasoning. As one observer notes, “Reagan believed that if you improve the mood of the nation, you improve the nation.” Jarecki also makes the point that Reagan nearly getting assassinated was the best thing that ever happened to him. And yet Reagan’s policies were destructive to the middle class of this country. “Trickle-down economics” caused job losses and the deficit exploded because Reagan drastically increased military spending. He broke the law with Iran-Contra scandal and barely took a hit for it. But it makes sense that in our short-attention span country, Iran-Contra was more difficult to comprehend than the President getting blown by an intern.
Those who worship Reagan will most likely despise the movie because worship of an individual requires the removal of critical thought. But Reagan is by no means a hatchet job. Jarecki explains that Reagan genuinely thought he was in the right and that his sunshine and rainbows demeanor about “Morning in America” was not an act, despite the drastic difference between his political calculations and public demeanor. But to me, a more impressive figure than Reagan is his son Ron Reagan. Ron clearly loves his father but he’s willing to be objective about his father’s policies. In a quote that deserves to be carved in stone in the Reagan Library: “My father wasn’t the villain liberals made him out to be, but he also wasn’t the hero that conservatives made him out to be.”
In choosing to focus on the entirety of Reagan’s life (or as much as can be squeezed into a 100 minute movie), the film sometimes feels like it’s not really scratching the surface. Other than his wife Nancy, it doesn’t seem like Reagan had any key advisors and obviously his presidency was more than just trickle-down, fall of Communism, and Iran-Contra. Reagan lacks a clear view into the character of the Ronald Reagan, but it has a keen insight into the character of our country and the conservative movement.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: