HBO's Reagan — Where's the Rest of Him?
The new documentary Reagan treats its subject in as fair and balanced a way as would seem possible -- for a while.
Liberal filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) shows how a handsome radio broadcaster named Ronald Reagan channeled his ambition into a film career that gave way to a remarkable political run.
But once we see Reagan taking the oath of office, Jarecki’s ability to rein in his ideology collapses. The film lulls conservative viewers into a sense of calm only to trap them into a dishonest account of the 40th president’s legacy.
Jarecki sets his trap early, using a musty clip of Reagan discussing how images don’t always match the reality.
“Seldom, if ever, do we ask if the images are true to the original. Even less do we question how the images are created. This is probably more true of presidents in our country because of the intense spotlight that follows their every move,” Reagan says.
Jarecki wants to rob the right of using Reagan, or at least the symbol he’s become, as a rallying point.
The film begins with the outpouring of affection during Reagan’s public funeral, then segues to Reagan’s teen days as a near-sighted lifeguard.
He was a dashing young man who made his own luck, and for a while that combination helped him land a series of big screen roles. But after serving in the military during World War II, Reagan returned to a film industry where antiheroes were the hot new trend. A straight up hero type need not apply.
So he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, a position that shifted his political compass from a self-described “hemophiliac liberal” to a conservative. He later served six years as a GE spokesman, letting him flex his budding political ideals to the consternation of his bosses.
That’s where Reagan learned to sell himself and his political principles, according to his son, Ron Reagan, Jr.
Jarecki’s film to this point relies on traditional documentary techniques to fill in Reagan’s formative years. The tone is reverential, not flashy. The content may lack depth, but it’s breezily stitched together in a way that should enlighten those who know little about Reagan prior to his years in the Oval Office.
The first sign that the fix is in comes in retelling the end of the Iranian hostage crises and the dawn of Reagan‘s presidency. A voice tells us Reagan had nothing to do with the hostages’ release, preferring to give credit to outgoing President Jimmy Carter even though common sense tells you the pressure of a new, no-nonsense commander in chief clearly made it happen.
The film takes direct aim at Reaganomics while ignoring how the president’s policies caused the economy to come roaring back to life.
It’s here where Jarecki really puts his thumb on the scales of documentary justice. The number of Reagan supporters shown on screen drops, and his critics take over. For example, the film focuses on a small town called Dixon to prove how wrongheaded Reagan’s policies were for the country, trotting out images of distressed neighborhoods and people waiting in lines for work. Only Reagan economist Arthur Laffer is allowed to defend the policies, and by omitting its positive results he’s essentially discredited.
Talk about selective editing.
Yes, the film calls upon old Reagan allies like James Baker and George Shultz to describe Reagan and his policies, and it shrewdly doesn’t recruit any far-left types from The Nation or Media Matters to poison the narrative. But it doesn't use them to defend his administration's policies.
The lengthy segment on Iran-Contra is deservedly critical, and the only defense offered up is by Reagan’s son who weakly claims his father meant well in breaking the law.
Reagan really falters when trying to capture the bigger picture. The film diminishes the president’s role in defeating Communism, gives little attention to how his optimism cheered the nation, and claims his policies amounted to a “transfer of wealth” from the poor to the rich.
The director’s dodgiest tactic comes via a military veteran used throughout the movie to sing Reagan’s praises. Why does Jarecki keep returning to this fellow? Why should he matter so much? We learn why in the documentary’s waning moments when the veteran slams America and its capitalistic system.
The film also tries to pin the country’s current deficit woes on Reagan as well as the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which, the film implies, were all about oil.
Reagan is textbook documentary bias masquerading as an honest assessment of a transformative president.