TV Review: Acclaimed Documentarian Tackles Legacy of ‘Reagan’

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CHICAGO – It may have been missed by some during yesterday’s Superbowl festivities, but Sunday would have been the 100th birthday of one of our country’s most beloved leaders, Ronald Reagan. To commemorate the occasion, HBO is premiering a documentary by the excellent filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight,” “The Trials of Henry Kissinger”) titled simply “Reagan.”

HollywoodChicago.com Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

There are few leaders in the history of the White House more beloved than Ronald Reagan. He has become so iconic that it’s hard to get beneath the image to the real man beneath. It’s difficult to see humanity when someone is so high on a pedestal. And Ronald Reagan was not a very easy man to get to know. The documentary makes clear that he had few friends, close only really to Nancy. Interviews with family members make them sound nearly as inquisitive as to who exactly Reagan was as you or me. He was a private man and that can make a tough subject for a documentary.

Reagan
Reagan
Photo credit: HBO

Of course, it’s not for lack of trying. Jarecki interviews several of the major politicians who worked with Reagan along with his family members and, most of all, those who have written books about Ronald Reagan and/or worked to preserve his legacy by getting roads, school, libraries, and even an airport named after him.

Reagan
Reagan
Photo credit: HBO

“Reagan” offers interesting biographical details including how the future President shaped his leadership skills by first being a lifeguard when he was young (creating a savior complex, arguably) and then as president of SAG. It is a bit glossed over how Reagan worked with the HUAC to name names of alleged Communists but that’s a minor quibble. It is at least mentioned and not completely ignored.

Speeches from Reagan’s earlier political years make it clear how much of the man’s charisma, power, and personal philosophies were in place as soon as he entered the political arena. Jarecki’s film paints a portrait of a man with clear morals and passions at a time when that’s exactly what America needed. He was the leader the free world not only wanted but needed. The ads made it clear — “Do you really think the Russians would have invaded Afghanistan if RONALD REAGAN were President?” He was not going to be President. He was going to lead the entire world. And, in many ways, he did.

Of course, not everyone would agree with whether or not that was a good thing. Was he a leader or, as a voice says on the film, “a man with good fortune?” Is “Reagan” merely a love letter to an already-beloved President or does it present the other side of the argument as well? The fact is that Reagan economics and moral gray areas (in Iran-Contra, for example) demand at least presentation in a documentary about the man and Jarecki does present those who question Reagonomics in one of the most interesting segments of the film while also getting to the thought that perhaps Reagan’s Presidency has been a bit overblown in the nearly quarter-century since he left office. And the film certainly does not let Reagan off the hook in terms of Iran-Contra legally but does somewhat present it as something he thought was morally right to do.

Overall, Jarecki feels rushed to hit all the beats of his Presidency — the hostages released during his inauguration, the assassination attempt, Gorbachev, Iran-Contra, etc. — and he doesn’t quite get beneath the skin of most of them. People loved Reagan. He loved his people. Didn’t we know that? There are segments that are spectacular, including the incisive commentary that Reagan cared about certain subjects (nuclear weapons, taxes) and ignored others (AIDS, poverty) because he couldn’t put a face on the latter. Still, some chapters seem rushed and are missing the depth of others.

In many ways, we are still living in Ronald Reagan’s America. Love him or hate him, his influence on both parties and the entire world of politics today is undeniable. With that in mind, perhaps it’s too soon to fully understand the man and his legacy in a documentary. It’s still being written.

‘Reagan,’ which airs on HBO was directed by Eugene Jarecki. It premieres on February 7th, 2011 at 8PM CST.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

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