Unsurprisingly, The Reagan Show feels incredibly current. The tale of a political outsider who cut his teeth in front of a camera lens draws immediate parallels. The identification of a leader who seemingly told it “how it is” and spoke for the silent majority similarly echoes across time. Certainly, the comparison with Donald Trump is dealt with a cautionary wink to camera. Within three minutes the phrase “make American great again” is dropped in warily.
However, this taut documentary provides more than a hollow simile. Featuring extensive behind-the-scenes access to the first ‘PR President’, The Reagan Show depicts an actor partaking in the greatest role of his career; Leader of the Free World.
Throughout, the inherent theatricality of politics is picked apart. From the rhetorical flourishes through to the canny acknowledgement of good photo opportunities, Reagan is shown to be a leader who was palpably aware of his public persona. As a protagonist, the Directors have selected the perfect target. Reagan’s posthumous deification by conservatives, as well as his own prophetic nods to the City on a Hill can make him appear to be a political leader clean from an Aaron Sorkin script.
Yet the quirky angle of this documentary is to appraise this cine-literate President in a cine-literate structure. The First Act introduces our earnest, All-American hero, and his attempts to tackle the pesky Communists from the USSR. The Second Act closes with the hero’s puncturing over the Iran-Contra Affair, whilst the Third Act features a rousing return to form from that critical nadir. Reagan is portrayed as earnest, charming, but ultimately fallible. The documentary does well to go behind the smile, and question openly whether looking Presidential is enough.
US-Soviet relations are a particularly adroit choice of topic by the creators. Few scenarios are more cinematic than the spectre of Nuclear War. Indeed, the mention of the Star Wars Defence Program makes explicit the cinematic influence which Reagan provided both actively and vicariously on politics.
What’s more, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are framed as two actors vying for top billing. The battle for public and international validation sees the pair attempt to woo powerful allies, and deal with each other with faux-warmth. This is an immensely entertaining angle, and one which perfectly supports the main thrust of the documentary.
Whether this thesis would translate as neatly to a domestic policy agenda is difficult to perceive. Certainly, the more prosaic discussion of tax plans and Federal influence is less filmic. However, the point stands that Reagan brought an awareness of public profile which has only intensified in the past thirty years.
Weighing in at a lean 75 minutes, this documentary provides an entraining and thought-provoking look at an immensely important public figure. Fittingly, the final scenes see Reagan depart from the Oval Office in relative silence. He exits Stage Left like any actor, and leaves the space free for another performer to take control.
In a seminal film released during Reagan’s tenure, Back To The Future, the simple gag is that a B-Movie actor could never ascend to the West Wing. The Reagan Show hints that after this occurred, we shouldn’t be surprised that stranger things have since happened.
The Reagan Show is released on October 6th.