The Reagan Show

Studio: Gravitas Ventures & CNN Films
Directed by Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill

Jun 27, 2017 Web Exclusive
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It’s hard to imagine, in a day where White House press briefings are media spectacles unto themselves, that the Presidency was not always a 24-7 reality show. Enter President Ronald Reagan, a former film actor who knew how to work the camera and who forever transformed the way television was utilized by our nation’s highest office. During his two terms, the White House produced more film footage than the previous five administrations combined. A camera crew followed the President about his daily activities, capturing both moments manufactured for public consumption and many more that obviously weren’t. These videos – which were called White House Television, or WHTV for short – numbered in the thousands and form the basis of Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s compelling documentary. The Reagan Show captures an era when the Presidency of the United States became as much about managing international celebrity as it is about exercising political power.

Built entirely from vintage footage, The Reagan Show begins with film clips of Reagan fighting Nazis and Native Americans in old movie roles, and paints him as a man with a strong understanding of how the public reacts to imagery and phrasing. As we watch him stumble and curse over a candidate’s name during a campaign ad outtake, pose in the Oval Office with Mr. T and Michael Jackson, or direct Nancy’s body language during a cheesy photo shoot, his media savvy is obvious. It’s when the documentary settles into Reagan’s second, more trying term where the film finds its best angle.

Reagan’s second four years, as they’re illustrated here, saw the media’s focus shift from adulation to scrutiny. As the doc follows him through several of his most challenging trials – the Geneva and Reykjavik summits, the Iran weapons scandal, and his struggle to get a nuclear treaty approved by the Senate – we see his poise shift from a man in command of his public image to one doing everything he can to protect it. It’s these trace losses of composure that are most interesting to watch. The footage taken during his many meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – himself a master of public relations – is like watching two championship boxers go at it in a contest of heavyweight posturing and chest-puffing.

Aesthetically, The Reagan Show plays like a VHS collage, well-worn over multiple generations of dubs and perhaps one too many plays. Given Reagan’s ubiquity with the 1980s, it couldn’t be any other way. Running less than 75 minutes, it's over too fast, but that hour and change are certainly fascinating. 

Author rating: 7/10

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