Through the years, Ronald Reagan has become a myth conservatives can worship and liberals can despise. Both sides blame Reagan for the country’s current state of affairs, and they either praise every decision he made or criticize every little thing about him. But Eugene Jarecki’s latest documentary, Reagan, constructs a much more complete picture of the actor-turned-president. As a result of this middle-ground approach, Reagan is Jarecki’s most mature work to date. While retaining his habit of mixing popular music and television shows with more serious anecdotes and interviews, Jarecki successfully characterizes Reagan in a way even hardcore democrats won’t be able to resist.
Much of the even-handedness of the film can be attributed to Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan. You might remember him from the 2004 Democratic convention when he spoke about stem cell research. His avoidance of partisan speaking in that speech and now in this film seems characteristic. In Reagan he comes across as a knowingly biased, yet completely fair interview subject. He praises his father’s good qualities – Reagan’s desire to be a hero, his love of this country – and criticizes his bad qualities – the Iran-contra affair being most prominent. The president’s other son, Michael, is far more political in his approach to his father, but Ron seems trustworthy. He gives the film, relying on Ron’s testimony, a trustworthy backbone.
PBS puts out a series that I love called “The Presidents.” They have released a four-hour documentary on Ronald Reagan that gives you a detailed crash-course in Reagan’s life and politics. Reagan starts similarly, going over Reagan’s early career as a lifeguard, actor, union president, and GE spokesman. What makes this film different than a PBS production, though, is the inclusion of biased interviews. Many of Jarecki’s subjects believe the myth surrounding Reagan and either love or despise him. Many come across as self-serving as they try to justify their own participation in the administration. Reagan works because the end result gives us a more complicated, confused understanding of the president than we had before. The film forces us to reconsider our own thoughts on the Reagan myth and perhaps adjust them accordingly. Yes, through cutting taxes Reagan created a disgusting amount of poverty. He ignored AIDS and he ignored congress. Because of these deplorable actions, people want to feel indignant and angry watching Reagan. They want to make that superior, annoying audience “tsk hisss sigh.” But Jarecki’s film refuses to give them that satisfaction. As a result, he has created an interesting, moving, inspiring film on which members of the left and right might finally be able to agree.