A man who got his start peddling good ’ol American values on the silver screen, Ronald Reagan knew about the strategic importance of looking good on camera. In eight years, “The Great Communicator” produced more television content than the five presidents before him combined. His presidency saw the creation of White House TV, which filmed, edited, and released near-daily TV coverage of him and his doings. Built entirely of video material from WHTV, including awkward outtakes, and contemporary news reports, Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s The Reagan Show is an insightful portrait of the former American president and the world that he shaped.
History’s biggest figures often attract our fascination for their larger-than-life personas. Of course politics involves performance, but this documentary suggests that Reagan’s entire presidency was one of perpetual performance; every offhand moment and offbeat detail here is evidence of how the man was always playing to the camera. The film diligently reveals that the identity—even the very being—of the conservative fountainhead was as much a set of viewpoints and policies as it was an image designed for television.
The Reagan Show feels deeply tied to the current era. After we’re reminded that “Make America Great Again” originated with Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, it becomes impossible not to see his awkward defense of the Iran-Contra affair as a spiritual predecessor to “alternative facts.” From the film’s presentation of Reagan’s media coverage you’d think the Cold War was about looks, composure, and image victories—in short, the things the president was best at manipulating. And the news outlets’ frequent eagerness to stress these trivialities is a stark reminder that the American media has always had a deep-seated weakness for conservative provocateurs.
Regrettably, The Reagan Show’s thesis gets lost in its overreliance on presenting a historical narrative of Reagan’s nuclear-disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union. There are forays into Reagan’s marriage to Nancy (one particularly strange moment features him asking her to stand between him, chainsaw in hand, and a tree during a photo shoot at their family ranch) and highlights of his second term. There’s purpose to the overlong focus on the Strategic Defense Initiative, as the notoriously impossible project only really existed on TV; “Star Wars,” as it came to be known, was widely ridiculed by the U.S. media but did still manage to incite the media-savvy Mikhail Gorbachev. Nonetheless, the focus on the program overwhelms the film, its more reflective tone abandoned as it becomes a plain archival history of Reagan’s dogged standoff with the Soviets.
Discussing the outsized role of media manipulation in American politics without driving into the sinkhole of nihilism requires a special clarity of vision. The film maintains its composure in the face of a man content with using maddeningly simple terms to perpetrate his agenda. Ultimately, we’re reminded that television is instrumental to Washington’s policy-making. It’s the place in the American imagination where quips, struts, and proclamations become the power to wield political leverage, and become reality.