Sundance Review: Reagan Digs Deep Into The President But Comes Away With Little

By Katey Rich 2011-01-27 21:56:59discussion comments
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Ronald Reagan's name has been bandied about like a conservative, comforting football with increasing frequency lately-- he's seemingly the only Republican of the last 30 years that anyone can agree on, and the subject of a lot of nostalgia and fascination for people who grew up in the 80s and are now coping with his legacy. With Reagan's 100th birthday and the 30th anniversary of his inauguration happening this year, it's a good a time as any to revisit the man; though Eugene Jarecki's sprawling two-hour doc Reagan hits all the key points and interviews some important people from all across the political spectrum, it's still not quite the analysis and assessment the subject deserves.

The film starts by addressing the strong Ronald Reagan meme running throughout pop culture, showing clips of everyone from Sarah Palin to Jack Donaghy evoking his name with reverence. But from there it dives headfirst into the biographical details, visiting Reagan's childhood home in Illinois and hitting the high points of his acting career that led, in a fascinatingly indirect pay, to politics. When Reagan was hired as the national spokesperson for General Electric, the company wanted him to travel the country and talk up the merits of this and that product; instead he got deeply involved in issues of corporate governance and national pride, and was fired when his stump speeches eventually go to be political. From there, as the movie depicts it, it was just a few easy steps to become Governor of California and, after three failed bids for the Republican nomination, to the Presidency.

Jarecki lingers a while in Reagan's early years but never gets at any fundamental truth about the man himself-- the glowing interviews with Ron Reagan Jr. don't help much-- so it's only once Reagan takes office that the film veers away from the kind of hagiography it was clearly trying to avoid. It hits all the major points anyone familiar with the Reagan years would expect, from a searing takedown of Reaganomics by Harvard economist Simon Johnson to even hardcore supporters like Pat Buchanan admitting the Iran-Contra affair and Grenada invasion were a mistake. But even then everyone is ready to exonerate him; Ron Reagan actually links the Iran-Contra affair to Reagan's desire to protect people above all, and passing mentions of Reagan's lack of empathy for the poor are scarcely examined. No one can even agree on what the man's personality was like, and Jarecki essentially points to an SNL sketch as the actual explanation-- one moment he's the kindly Gipper with jelly beans, the next a shouting task master. Neither figure seems right based on what we've seen, but even after two hours Reagan still seems more like the cipher propped up by the right than a living, breathing human being.

A few heartbreaking details emerge about Reagan's decline into Alzheimer's late in life, and when attention turns back to the modern adoration of Reagan the documentary picks back up as more than the Great Story of a Great Man. But for all its remarkable access to footage and talking heads, Reagan feels more like a missed opportunity, an invitation to wrestle with history that becomes merely a fond look back. There's a lot to learn for people behind on their 80s history-- high school kids will doubtlessly be seeing a lot of this one-- but not much to savor once the two hours are finished.
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