In the demythologizing of the Reagan mystique there was 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. Coming from the director of angry finger-pointing documentaries such as 'Why We Fight', it seems to be a surprise to the filmmaker himself, as well as the audience, that Jarecki’s film is as conventional and reverent to the man as it is.
Reagan (2011) dir. Eugene Jarecki
By Alan Bacchus
This is what Jarecki admitted in the Q&A following the Sundance Premiere in 2011. Using the simplified title of Reagan's 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 myth-makers.
Though it’s fair, it’s no less enthralling, tracing back through 100 years of American history - from Reagan's humble childhood in Illinois to his career in Hollywood to his career as a pitch man for GE to his political career as Governor of California and finally to 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 Reagan's personality to a number of key decisions in his life. Namely his success as a lifeguard in his youth, during which, despite being poorly sighted, he 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. Jarecki demonstrates Reagan’s unquestioned success as a figurehead for the nation while strengthening the 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. It's 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 controversial and unsuccessful voodoo economic policies, as well as that flag-waving friendly cowboy that patriotically united the country.
Surprises are few. Jarecki 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 demonstrated shades of grey in all of his dealings.
Reagan is mostly riveting 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 who no one will really ever know completely.