Monday, 24 January 2011
SUNDANCE 2011: Reagan
By Alan Bacchus
Coming from the director of angry finger pointing documentaries such as Why We Fight, we can’t but anticipate a demythologizing of the Reagan mystique, a deliberate campaign perpetrated in the past 10 years by the Republican party to make the two term President a beacon of right wing values. And so it seems to be as much a surprise to the filmmaker himself as well as us the audience that Jarecki’s film is as conventional and reverent to the man as it is.
This is what Jarecki admitted in the Q&A following the World Premiere of his film. Using the simplified title of his last name suggests a thorough examination of the man. It's a smart decision for Jarecki to stay on the side of fair play, as a black-white vilification of the man would be as irresponsible as those Republican mythmakers.
Though it’s fair it’s no less enthralling, tracing back through 100 years of American history - from his humble childhood in Illinois to his career in Hollywood to his career as a pitch man for GE, his political career as Governor of California and finally his eight years as President which saw him preside over an amplification of the Cold War as well as beginning the process of dismantling it.
Jarecki’s metaphors successfully link the pillars of his personality to a number of key decisions in his life. Namely his success as a lifeguard in his youth, wherein, despite being poorly sighted, saved over 70 people from drowning in a lake over the course of this job. This desire to protect the innocent cleverly feeds his motivations in the Iran-Contra affair some 50+ years later when he famously broke the law in order to trade guns for the lives of the Lebanese hostages.
Same goes for his career as a pitchman for General Electric, which becomes the prevailing metaphor for his victories in politics. As a figurehead for the nation, Jarecki demonstrates Reagan’s unquestioned success in strengthening American position in the world in place of sound informed decision-making.
Like Reagan’s conservative politics, Jarecki sticks to a traditional approach to the story. A meat and potatoes film for a meat and potatoes President. Talking heads from his family and close political advisors paint the picture of the man we saw in office. Reagan comes off as both the shrewd conservative that presided over the voodoo economic policies which transferred enormous wealth from the rich to the poor as well as that flag waving friendly cowboy that patriotically united the country.
Surprises are few. Jareki confirms some of the tales of Reagan as an aloof simpleton who left much of the decision-making to either his wife or his trusted and more experienced colleagues. He also rips through the hyperbole of Reaganites such as Grover Norquist who deify him. The truth is Reagan was complex and shades of grey in all of his dealings.
Reagan is mostly rivetting stuff for its 100 minutes, capturing all the jubilation, optimism, fear and despair from his career in politics. And though the film is undoubtedly impeccably researched he's still an enigma whom no one will really ever know completely.