Like the president it chronicles, documentarian Eugene Jarecki's Reagan seeks to be all things to all people—a "balanced" portrait with enough conservative cheerleading and liberal tomato throwing to leave each side feeling acknowledged, and no one fully satisfied. Unlike Ronald Wilson Reagan, Jarecki's brisk, lush and expensive-looking attempt at populism falls short, frequently acknowledging Reagan's contradictory legacy, but too often with about as much depth or substance as one of the touchscreen video presentations at the Reagan Presidential Library. The boom market for all things Reagan in this centennial year of his birth means there's probably a reasonably sizable audience for Reagan the movie, but the film itself has to be viewed as a failed attempt that sheds only a few flickering shafts of new light on the Reagan presidency. Despite Reagan's undeniable importance to the shape America has taken in the years since he passed from the political scene, the debate over his actual achievements remains unresolved.
Jarecki, whose previous documentaries include the liberal-minded Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger, seems to have traded point of view for access this time. From James Baker to George Schultz, a veritable who's who of Reagan stalwarts, cabinet members and appointees sit for interviews; given how protective the Reagan circle is known to be over his legacy, it's hard to believe assurances of neutrality weren't on offer. Hard questions are never asked of the men who served Reagan; instead, a much smaller coterie of liberal and conservative scholars debates Reagan's accomplishments in a point/counterpoint structure, giving the impression at times that even facts themselves are still up for grabs. A tone of "maybe yes and maybe no" informs even settled conclusions if they threaten to agitate the sizable Reagan base.
A perfect example is an equivocal segment where Reagan's son Ron casts doubt on the actuality of Reagan's double-sided performance before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) when he was President of the Screen Actor's Guild during the McCarthy Era "Red Scare." Reagan stood up to the committee in public, testifying that the Communist problem in the film industry was manageable and that the studios and unions were capable of policing themselves. But thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, it's been established fact since 1985 that even as Reagan received kudos for his public testimony, he was simultaneously and secretly informing to the FBI on guild members he considered too leftwing, and also giving agents information about the activities of HICCASP, a Roosevelt-era Hollywood liberal action committee Reagan considered a Communist front. Looking at the heavily redacted FBI reports about Reagan's secret testimony, it seems probable that blackballed Hollywood Ten writer Dalton Trumbo (a HICCASP officer) was one of the names Reagan gave to the FBI.
The unacknowledged source for much of Jarecki's film seems to be interviewee Edmund Morris' superb but controversial authorized Reagan biography Dutch. Like Dutch, Reagan finds the key to Ronald Reagan's personality in his formative experiences as a lifeguard in Lowell Park, Illinois, where Reagan rescued over 70 people from the treacherous Rock River he watched over. Reagan's motives are therefore saintly and benign ones, even in dubious contexts. The squalid illegalities of the Iran Contra scandal, for example, are explained (and therefore excused) by Reagan's empathy for the families of the hostages held in Iran.
When that key doesn't fit, it gets thrown away. Reagan's failure to so much as mention AIDS for the first seven years of his presidency hardly seems to fit the profile of a rescuer, so motive is not addressed. A claim is made that Rock Hudson's AIDS-related death finally gave Reagan a human face for the disease, though Jarecki fails to make clear that it still took Reagan another two years to so much as say the word AIDS in public. Meanwhile Reagan Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who has stated that he was cut out of all discussions of the virus for the first five years of Reagan's administration, is neither interviewed nor mentioned.
There are other odd omissions. The Challenger disaster and Reagan's response to it—frequently cited as one of his finest presidential moments—is entirely absent. Ditto the D.A.R.E. program and the failed "war on drugs." The withdrawal from Beirut after a terrorist bomb killed 241 U.S. servicemen and the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island Grenada are addressed briefly, but the relationship between the two is not discussed. Grenada was taken just two days after the Beirut disaster—so close in time that Reagan addressed both in a single prime time speech, raising suspicions that Grenada was a photo-op war, fabricated in a crisis to change the subject. A fairly damning analysis of the debt-driven policy known as "Reaganomics" illustrates how the icon of fiscal conservatism launched the era of federal deficit spending. But Reagan budget director David Stockman, who openly called his own "supply side" economic formulations a "Trojan Horse" for cutting rich people's taxes, is, like C. Everett Koop, un-interviewed and never brought up.
We may be too close in time to fully understand the Reagan phenomenon, but historians agree that the dashing and authoritative image he cut was central to his presidential success. Reagan coasts along on that image—dropping in a huge number of sound bites from Reagan's carefully composed public speeches, while not always providing enough context to examine how well his policy matched his pronouncements. It is unquestionable that Reagan's priorities—a tax code amenable to corporations and the wealthy rather than the middle class; an inviolable commitment to defense spending; drastically weakened unions; the projection of American strength via gunboat diplomacy—remain the priorities of America even after 22 years and with a Democrat in the White House. As a debt-financed USA moves through the third year of an intransigent economic contraction while still fighting two open-ended wars, Reagan is only intermittently successful at connecting the historical dots.
Distributor: HBO Films
Director/Screenwriter: Eugene Jarecki
Producers: Eugene Jarecki, Kathleen Fournier
Running time: 112 min
Release date: Premiers February 7 on HBO