Given how the Republican Party speaks of Ronald Reagan, he feels more like some cowboy legend than an American president. This speaks to Reagan’s image consciousness as a politician, with a carefully cultivated persona that fed into the idea of a folksy, telegenic hero made of equal parts grit, sagebrush, and Teflon. Reagan was an actor; he was acting, but so are many politicians when the cameras are rolling.
Using unseen footage of the 40th President, The Reagan Show helps pull back the curtain just a bit on a televized presidency. Comprised entirely of archival footage, it’s a fascinating look at how Reagan built and refined his image for the public. The footage also has the proper texture and fuzziness of magnetic tape of the era. There’s thankfully no digital pixelization or 16:9 cropping, which ruins the verisimilitude of old footage captured with old technology. Instead it’s like we’re watching this modern day documentary on video cassette on a 4:3 CRT TV.
And yet The Reagan Show also left me wanting more. It’s difficult to pack two terms of political theater into 75 minutes, though I wonder if the material that co-directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill had access to also reveals some of the Reagan savvy.
The Reagan Show
Directors: Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill
Release Date: June 30, 2017
We’re told at the outset that the Reagan administration was expert at video documentation. It was part of their political strategy. I was struck by a few minutes of footage of President Reagan pretending to be a cowboy. Velez and Pettengill show scenes from some of a younger Reagan’s westerns, and later show footage of President Reagan on the ranch with his wife Nancy, moseying around and looking rugged. There’s the narrative of his persona carried forward into the real world–America didn’t elect the real Ronald Reagan but the idea of Ronald Reagan/the hyperreal Ronald Reagan, as if there was any actual continuity between a character someone plays and the office they occupy later in life. While on horseback, Nancy Reagan gives the camera a terrified look, though she composes herself for the usable footage that perpetuates the cowboy myth. Reagan boyishly improvs while he and Nancy are photographed watering a sapling. They’re playing cowboy POTUS and cowgirl FLOTUS for the American public.
These funny moments are scattered throughout, though much of The Reagan Show focuses on the wind down of the Cold War. Reagan delivers a policy speech on TV to Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in a measured, statesmanlike cadence. Once the TV feed cuts, he snipes at the Soviet leader with a goofy insult, which makes Reagan giggle–part tough guy, part school boy who saw a tough guy say something like that on TV or a movie once. Again, he’s playing a part.
I felt myself wanting more of what The Reagan Show did well applied to other aspects of Reagan’s presidency. The Iran-Contra scandal is only alluded to once as an aside, and I wondered if any footage existed following the Challenger tragedy or John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt. And then again, Reagan’s team was probably smart enough to know when to put the cameras away or to ask the videographers to stop recording. It leaves me wondering just how much more footage there may be and if it’s of a similar character to what this doc has to show. In other words, more play and more acting.