There’s a reason that Ronald Reagan is still called “The Great Communicator” all these years later, and it’s all on screen in Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s documentary “The Reagan Show,” making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Eschewing both the cozily intimate style of modern political portraits like “Mitt” or the hard-hitting reportorial data crunch of a “Frontline” episode, Pettengill and Velez instead mine the thousands of hours of footage from the time period. They stitch it all together with only a handful of interstitial titles into a kind of remote cinema verite experience that feels like a slicker variation on guerrilla experiments like 1992’s little-seen “Feed.” The result is a jokey yet wonky trip through the alternate reality of the modern era’s first great political media machine.
All those decades working as journeyman actor, broadcaster, and corporate pitchman had taught Ronald Reagan that style mattered more than substance. After sweaty-browed Nixon, hapless Ford, and dreary Carter, Reagan arrived in the White House with a Hollywood-ready flourish. The B-actor and second-fiddle conservative populist finally had his great leading role to play: the kindly yet protective grandfather who would keep the monsters at bay and still be able to crack a joke or tell a bedtime story.
Pettengill and Velez take a gimlet-eyed view of the reality-distorting machinations now taken almost for granted. On-screen titles note that the Reagan administration put an unprecedented amount of effort into the production and presentation of TV footage. The conceit from the start seems to be that what the world was shown in those years was little more than a Potemkin Village of politics; one not dissimilar from the surreality show currently beaming out from the White House or Mar-a-Lago most days. The filmmakers frequently cut in bits of outtakes from a televised address or interview in which we see the Great Communicator redoing a line as though he were doing another take in a movie. David Gergen notes sourly that the Reagan White House seems little more than “a theater.”
“The Reagan Show” runs with this idea. The montage of nightly news coverage shows the deftly verbal all-male platoon of on-air 1980s eminences like Sam Donaldson, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings taking their positions as truth-telling governmental scourges far more seriously than their modern-day counterparts can manage. In contrast, Reagan is all sunshine and symbolism. What’s more, he’s unabashed about it. Asked by a reporter whether he thought his experience as an actor prepared him for the presidency, Reagan answers, “I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” It’s moments like that which make Koppel’s icy musing about whether Reagan’s vaunted “shining city on a hill” would turn out to be real “or just a vacant Hollywood lot?” read as less opinionating than reporting.
In part, the filmmakers might be arguing we are living in the world that the Reagan television show helped create. After all, a reporter musing today about an administration’s desire to “create a media narrative” is viewed as less cynical than truthful. The melding of showmanship to policy is seen as so commonplace that most stories about the Obama administration’s even more tight-fisted control over news access and their aggressive forays into online media were respectful rather than critical.
Satirically tart throughout, “The Reagan Show” is still a schizoid experience. It mostly wants to dissect the Reaganites’ bread and circuses tactics, but also to present a thumbnail history of his presidency. Both are credibly delivered, but they don’t always necessarily mesh. Skillfully mined montages on things like Reagan’s knack for using the same joke innumerable times or his skill at evading reporters’ questions (always be walking far away, smiling and waving back, preferably into Marine One) don’t always sync up with the chronological take on things like the SALT II talks and Iran-Contra.
For instance, Pettengill and Velez correctly include a short segment on the 1983 broadcast of the nuclear war TV docudrama “The Day After,” noting that Reagan himself was among the 100 million Americans who tuned in. Strangely, though, they jump almost right from that to the Mikhail Gorbachev peace talks without looking at the central role “The Day After” played in Reagan’s thinking about nuclear war, an infinity loop of reality feeding into art feeding back into reality.
The approach is less a Noam Chomsky examination of manufactured narratives and more a bemused and head-shaking critique, not unlike the behind-the-scenes viewpoint of Penny Lane’s 8mm inside the White House portrait “Our Nixon” (which this movie’s co-writer Francisco Bello edited). That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The dark side of this raw agglomeration of bloopers, outtakes, and staged photo ops is more impactful as primary documents, without it being re-digested for us by experts in the present day. If “The Reagan Show” is arguing anything, it’s that leaders like Reagan have already controlled too much of how they are viewed for the additions of more filters to be a good idea. [B+]