One of the quickest films to reach a wide audience following its Sundance premiere last month, Eugene Jarecki's 'Reagan' debuts on HBO tonight (fittingly, a day after Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday). And it's a must-see for fans of non-fiction film, fans of the 40th president, and even those critical of the man for whatever reason. Jarecki, whose last feature was the magnificently comprehensive 2005 military-industrial-complex history, 'Why We Fight,' may still surprise you with just how fair and lucid a portrait he has made about such a controversial and complicated figure.
He "was both smarter and better than the left think he was," Ron Reagan Jr. says in the film, "and less the giant than many on the right think he was." The son of Ronald and Nancy is a consistent presence throughout 'Reagan' (Michael Reagan is the only other family member to appear, briefly), and he provides some of the most personal and yet also some of the most unbiased commentary, quite beneficial to a work that means to iron out the mythology and iconography of a man typically viewed more symbolically than realistically these days.
Key terms that constantly pop up in the film are of a generalistic and fabling nature: "tone," "legacy," "era," "turning point." Because that's how we seem to view Reagan, good or bad, as a folkloric entity of a broadly and romantically classifiable time. He was the actor/spokesmodel/cowboy -- in short, the "image president." Jarecki -- who admits in interviews to being an Eisenhower Republican who agreed and disagreed with the man on different policies -- sharpens those images stealthily by letting Reagan's life unfold squarely through clips and some sober (albeit occasionally partial) testimony.
The history pretty much speaks for itself, as does the subject. There is a point during the film's address of Reagonomics where the doc geneologically hints at origins of the recent financial crisis (well, one interviewee actually makes the connection), but Jarecki never really goes for that sort of contemporary relevance, even if he also includes some jabs at the Tea Party's idolatry of Reagan and his attitudes on limited government. The doc is a simply focused biography of Reagan, to the point that at times it feels like merely an very well-produced A&E episode.
During Sundance, the buzz I heard on 'Reagan' came from staunch liberals, who were disappointed with its exclusion of the president's harshest critics, and conservatives, who were shocked that it wasn't as infuriating to them as expected. I think as long as liberal viewers stick with the film past its initially sympathetic approach, they and those on the right should be able to acknowledge the doc's balance and frankness. We don't get many political portaits this neutral, so let's all appreciate it.