A glamorous leading man with the common touch, a dedicated “Cold Warrior” who helped negotiate the most sweeping accords in history with the Soviet Union and a staunch proponent of smaller government, Ronald Reagan remains an enigma even to many of his closest advisors.
A fresh examination of the fascinating paradoxes surrounding the man, the myth and his legacy, Eugene Jarecki’s insightful documentary REAGAN follows the 40th president’s rise from small-town lifeguard to revered architect of the modern world. This textured study investigates how Reagan’s homespun political vision fueled a seismic career, one whose reverberations still shape American life.
Balancing the conflicting versions presented by colleagues, historians, supporters and family, while combining archival footage, never-before-seen interviews and the words of Reagan himself, Jarecki assembles a rich portrait of a contradictory figure who spun his movie stardom into political gold and became the leader of the free world.
Tracing his subject from small-town boyhood to heady Hollywood days, Jarecki discovers a man whose offhand amiability masked a steely resolve. When his acting career faltered after World War II, Reagan reinvented himself, first as president of the Screen Actors Guild, then as a pitchman for products ranging from cigarettes to laundry soap. He eventually landed the role that would send him down another path, as official television and corporate spokesperson for General Electric. Reagan’s travel on behalf of the company to small towns around the nation provided him with a unique political education as he gave speeches and mingled with GE’s workers. The one-time FDR enthusiast and supporter of the New Deal gradually abandoned his liberal roots for more conservative pastures.
By the 1960s, his transformation was complete. Standing beside archconservative Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president, Reagan became a charismatic voice for conservatism in America. As the civil unrest of the era exploded nationwide, Reagan rode the white, working-class backlash all the way to Sacramento and two terms as governor of California.
Reagan’s willingness to allow the National Guard to confront demonstrating students with tear gas and attack dogs earned him a reputation as a tough traditionalist. The support and admiration of the so-called “silent majority” buoyed his unsuccessful campaigns for the presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976, and in 1980, he topped the GOP field to run against and beat incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
Once in office, Reagan proved more pragmatic than dogmatic. After campaigning for lower taxes, his administration raised taxes in six of the eight years of his presidency. Regardless, his charm and affability won the hearts of the American public, which overwhelmingly reelected him in 1984.
He denounced the U.S.S.R. as an “Evil Empire,” demanded that the Soviets “tear down the [Berlin] Wall” and authorized the ambitious Star Wars Initiative to keep America militarily dominant. But at the same time, Reagan was engaged in negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev that resulted in a sweeping agreement to reduce their nuclear arsenals.
His administration was rocked by the Iran-Contra affair after it emerged that arms had been sold in exchange for hostages and then, against the will of Congress, the proceeds had funded Nicaraguan “freedom fighters.” REAGAN takes an in-depth look at the scandal, which almost derailed his presidency, offering details on the president’s role and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s refusal to turn over cabinet meeting notes.
Jarecki also explores how Reagan’s personal beliefs aligned with his public policies and finds that this stalwart symbol of conservative family values was also quietly open-minded on social issues.
Since Reagan left office in 1989, his name has become a mantra for Republican politicians seeking credibility, symbolizing a return to traditional values and a strong stand in the culture wars against liberal “elites.” But the truth, as Jarecki reveals, is far more complex.
Others featured in the documentary include former White House chief of staff James A. Baker; former White House senior advisor Pat Buchanan; former White House speechwriter Peter Robinson; Arthur Laffer, economist and architect of trickle-down economics; former CIA operative Frank Snepp; Ronald Reagan Legacy Project founder Grover Norquist; son Michael Reagan, who works to keep the legacy alive; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Frances Fitzgerald (“Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War”); official biographer Edmund Morris; Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson, co-authors of two best-selling books about Reagan; author Will Bunch (“Tear Down This Myth”); author Lou Cannon (“Reagan”); author Thomas Frank (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America”) and journalist Dan Rather.
Eugene Jarecki is an award-winning dramatic and documentary filmmaker and author. His 2006 film “Why We Fight” won multiple awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and a Peabody Award. Jarecki’s prior film, “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” was released to critical acclaim in more than 130 U.S. cities, won the 2002 Amnesty International Award, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and has been broadcast in more than 30 countries. In his most recent film, “Freakonomics,” Jarecki collaborated with other acclaimed documentarians to create an omnibus documentary based on the bestselling book of the same name by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.
HBO Documentary Films presents a Charlotte Street Film in association with BBC Storyville; a film by Eugene Jarecki; produced by Eugene Jarecki and Kathleen Fournier; written and directed by Eugene Jarecki; editor, Simon Barker; music by Robert Miller; director of photography, Etienne Sauret. For HBO: senior producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins. For BBC: executive producer, Nick Fraser.