Cinema And Politics: The Reagan Show
President Ronald Reagan signs the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, Rancho del Cielo, CA, 1981. As seen in The Reagan Show, directed by Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill. Photo credit: Karl Schumacher. Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. (Gravitas Ventures & CNN Films)
There’s a common Brazilian saying that if we saw how sausage got made, we’d probably never want to eat it. Much the same can be said about politics, or about how political news gets made and disseminated.
The White House, viewed as a creator and disseminator of images, dictating the public conversation, is at the center of Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s quick-paced, at times revelatory, documentary, The Reagan Show (2017), culled entirely from archival materials. Writing via email, Velez explains his and Pettengill’s approach: “Rather than a traditional work of ‘historical documentary’ á la Ken Burns, one that tries to synthesize a historical narrative out of its archival materials, the goal was something much more fragmented and decentered, something closer to a work of media archaeology.” Such archeological stylistic angle serves as a link to Velez’s earlier works, such as the documentary, Manakanama (2013).
The Reagan Show opens and closes with Reagan on his last day in office, as he gives an interview and leaves the White House, followed by rapid camera flashes. Between these two split frames of the same shot, we see how he got to remake (to the critics) or to solidify (to the admirers) his public image. From the oft-abused slogan, “Make America Great Again,” to projecting the same qualities that made him the stud of American westerns, Reagan convinced the American public that he fit the part (enough to win re-election).
We follow Reagan during his interviews and on international trips, behind the stage and between “official” takes, during staged shots with a Thanksgiving turkey, and anywhere he cares to be seen, or heard. Reagan was the first president to seek this level of television exposure. Unlike his more camera-shy predecessors, the former actor felt comfortable enough on television to harness its potential. And the press, Velez and Pettengill suggest, pretty much gobbled it up. Although, to be fair, amidst the footage from the networks there rings an occasional stringent note of protest.
But, for the most part, it is all a show. Velez and Pettengill set parts of the footage to an upbeat tune, which makes it feel like a sitcom, its pacing brisk to keep the audience hungry for more. Velez sees the tone as resulting from the material itself, the kind of possibilities that video presented in the 1980s: “We felt that presenting original recordings, framed only by our montage, was the best way for audiences to track Reagan through the end of the Cold War—and to re-experience all of that historical moment’s confusion, fear, humor and, above all, irony.”
Perhaps the more surprising caveat is to see Reagan upstaged by none other than the Soviet Union president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan engineers policy and dictates, for the most part, the nuclear arms race—the film reminds us of his total war mantra, and his grim, hollow-sounding pronouncement that to “be prepared for war is the most effectual means of preserving the peace.” In one scene, Reagan jokes to the cameras in the White House that he can’t stop a nuclear test, as certain congressmen demand, because, “When I got the call during dinner last night I said, Shoot da bomb.” “The trigger-happy president” as the critics call him cracks a laugh, and the gallows-humor absurdity of this scene, the casualness with which it is presented, slowly sinks in. But once the breaks are on, and Gorbachev seeks to engage the United States in talks, to limit the nuclear proliferation, it is the Soviet, not the American folk hero, who steals the media buzz.
In the current political climate, it may be tempting to seek a consoling message amidst Reagan’s media stunts. And yet, as Michael Deaver, Reagan’s Chief of Staff tells Barbara Walters in one clip, “It’s a game, Barbara.” And when that game is rigged, we may add, the American public stands to lose. This is all quite bleak, not the least because, as the filmmakers offer us a glimpse at how one technology tool radically reshaped the American presidency, we glare daily at our cellphones, anxiously, disbelievingly watching our current president do it again, on Twitter.