The Reagan Show Review
Ronald Reagan was never viewed as the brightest of Presidents. That misty, vacant look in his eyes and the semi-permanent gormless expression certainly didn't help that perception. His critics would say it was just another role for the ex-actor, a puppet for the powers that be within the Republican Party to manipulate at will (Spitting Image were able to make this a reality of sorts). And yet, his eight years in office had such a profound effect on the course of the modern world that it demands closer analysis. While The Reagan Show can only dig so deep due to its decision to use television footage, nonetheless, it does highlight the beginning of the heavily PR controlled political world we know so well today.
The documentary also offers a rarity in the genre, that of providing a non-judgemental or slanted point of view. You get out what you put into Sierra Pettengill's and Pacho Velez's film. If you are hoping for a documentary examining Reagan's pivotal role in the rise of neoliberalism, the Iran-Contra scandal, Libya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the AIDS crisis and more, then expect to be disappointed. While we do see Reagan's apology to the nation over the Iran prisoner arms trade it is brief and there is no mention of Col. Oliver North. The documentary's primary concern is showing how TV and the media were used to manicure Reagan's image unlike any other President before him.
Cameras followed Reagan everywhere within the White House, referred to as White House TV by insiders. Senior staff members are questioned by news anchors of the time about the increased use of media and they state that, either way, Reagan's image will be shown in a certain light by the media, so they might as well position themselves to control it. When asked in an interview if his previous life as an actor helped him as President, Reagan's responds: "There are times when I wondered how you could do this job if you hadn't been an actor." The footage is mostly taken from newsreels and includes parts that are typically edited out before being aired. These glimpses of Reagan's personality offer brief insights into his real thoughts on the messages he has just delivered, which more often than not are the complete opposite.
The growing Cold War between America and the, then, USSR brought with it the rising fear of nuclear war during Reagan's two terms in office. The proposed 'Star Wars' defence program promoted by the President and the ongoing propaganda about the threat of a Soviet attack was managed through the eye of his administration's media control. The frosty relations between the two countries takes up much of the films focus, in particular the introduction of new Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He understood only too well how to use the media while magnified under the world's spotlight during their nuclear agreement negotiations. What went on behind closed doors was never known but it could be argued that what they presented to world was of even more importance.
Running for a lean 75 minutes there is no fat on the bone and it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. The stage management of the political arena has long since began to damage rather than shape public perception, and while Reagan wasn't the first American leader to use the media to his advantage, he was certainly the first to use it to use it on such a scale. A later remark from an ABC news anchor speaks fearfully of what's to come post-Reagan: “No presidency before this one was so often judged as if it were a performing art. I shudder when it’s suggested that politicians who come after him will have to succeed first on television.” Reagan at least developed a career as a politician after his Hollywood career before stepping forward for the big job. But a President who developed a successful TV career before walking into the White House? No country would ever be so daft, surely?