Sundance 2011: Should Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin really be lionizing Ronald Reagan?
For someone so lauded by such a large portion of conservative America, it's surprising there's been no feature film about Ronald Reagan in the 30 years since he took office.
That vacuum -- coupled with the continued influence of the former president's policies and the ongoing invocation of his name in political rhetoric -- makes Eugene Jarecki's "Reagan" feel timely even though the late president had been out of public life since well before the beginning of this century. (It's also timely because, as Reagan supporters prepare to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday in a few days, a controversial book from son Ron Reagan has been disavowed by other members of the Reagan family.)
Jarecki begins his movie -- which premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival -- with an ironic clip of Reagan talking about the slipperiness of truth and images, and follows it with a mocking clip sequence of conservative pundits and politicians extolling Reagan. He speeds up the cuts until it becomes, comically, a jumble of Reagan-mania before it ends, hilariously, with a clip of Jon Stewart letting out a primal scream over an image of Reagan.
But this is hardly a Michael Moore-style drive-by.
Jarecki ("Why We Fight"; also a brother of documentarians Nick and Andrew Jarecki) soon gets down to more scholarly business. Following a linear chronology -- Reagan's childhood, his acting career, his involvement as a Screen Actors Guild leader, his governorship and, finally, the many highs and lows of his presidency -- Jarecki paints a complex portrait using a fairly conventional mix of talking heads and archival footage. Ron Reagan, James A. Baker, biographer Edmund Morris, conservative thinker Grover Norquist, liberal author Thomas Frank and many others pop up to talk about the truth and myths as they see them.
Jarecki's conclusion is that while Reagan is hardly the villain some on the left cast him as, he's not the godlike figure conservatives make him out to be, either. Nor, for that matter, does Jarecki think Reagan should he be so lionized by the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck even by their own standards: As Jarecki points out, Reagan actually expanded government during his eight years in office.
And while the "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech at Berlin's Brandenburg gate has become a symbol to many conservatives of his willingness to stand down communism, Jarecki gently reminds that many conservatives at the time opposed the speech and what it stood for, as it meant engaging the Soviet Union.
The filmmaker is particularly interested in the age-old clash between a view of Reagan as an aloof and doddering leader propped up by smart advisors and a view of him as a fierce, in-control politician. (Jarecki said later that he finds that both were true, at different times and on different issues. "Everyone we spoke to had two stories," he said.)
While the movie mostly struck an evenhanded tone, when Jarecki came to the stage after the screening, he went on the offensive.
"I came into this film with an ax to grind," he admitted, wryly noting he "didn't tell HBO that." In the end, he said his mind wasn't changed despite the years of research and roughly two dozen researchers who helped him. "I didn't get seduced by Ronald Reagan's folksy thing," he said. "A lot of it was stagecraft."
The pose, while effective, particularly rankled Jarecki. "It got us to be on board with insane things."
And while Reagan was known for espousing rhetoric about our ability for new beginnings, Jarecki said he didn't buy it. The idea that "we can start life all over again," Jarecki said, paraphrasing a Reagan mantra, "moves me, even though it's full of lies."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: 'Reagan.' Credit: Sundance Film Festival