Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The White House Reality Show

The Reagan Show (2016) - Velez, Pettengill
If John F. Kennedy was the first TV president, Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor turned the 40th American President, was the one who mastered the medium.

Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and Sierra Pettengill have made a documentary entirely out of the TV coverage of Reagan in his eight-year tenure. Thirty years have passed since Reagan left the Oval Office. Time has been kind to Reagan, as a majority of Americans regard his presidency as one of the best, even though others, like me, still see him as the emblem of 1980s corporate greed, ill-fated trickle-down economics, countless contras in Latin America, and cultural decadence.

The Reagan Show starts with a 1988 exit interview that Reagan did with David Brinkley of ABC News. Brinkley asks if being an actor helped with him being president; he answers: "There had been times, in this office, when I've wondered, you couldn't do the job if you hadn't been an actor." The film only shows the side of Reagan's highly prepped public, TV persona, with a hint of the 'man behind the mask' through a series of extended takes after they called 'cut.'

The doc shows the symbiotic love/hate relationship forged between the press and Reagan, in contrast with the deeply partisan, ugly political climate we find ourselves in now. I thought I'd never say this, but I miss the 80s.

Reagan, a b-movie actor who always maintained a good guy persona -- smiling face, iconic pompadour -- eased into the presidency like it was his second nature. Although the press rarely doubted his leadership ability and communication skills, they were asking exactly where he was leading the country to, if there was any substance behind the shining persona. Many also argued that he was a shell of a president and that the actual power of the White House laid with his associates and Nancy, his wife.

You wouldn't have known that his presidency had been anything but smooth sailing from all the press briefings in the film. The press was asking tough questions, not because it was partisan, but because it was doing its job. Many faces from the three major network are still familiar to us, such as Tom Brokow, Dan Rather and Chris Wallace (then an NBC reporter), just to name a few. This is the time before the Fox News Network and other cable news networks. It's interesting to note that the film is co-produced by CNN Films.

The film kicks into a gear with at the height of the Cold War under Reagan. He had called the Soviet Union 'the evil empire' and poured gasoline on the fire on the nuclear arms race when he announced the controversial SDI program (Strategic Defence Initiative), aka Star Wars. The symbolic Doomsday Clock inched forward to 12 o'clock. Ailing in his second term due to the Iran Contra controversy, he needed to boost his public image and secure his legacy.

But the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, then a new General Secretary of the Soviet Union -- relatively young, open minded and just as media savvy as his counterpart -- challenged Reagan's stature on the world stage. It was Gorbachev who first announced a complete disarmament of the nuclear arsenal by year 2000. He even hired an American image consulting firm to heighten his status. In order to outdo his newfound rival, Reagan announced a summit of the two countries to discuss and reach an agreement on the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) and upstaged him with the famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech in Berlin.

The Reagan Show highlights how the president used the relatively new technology to his advantage. But this documentary isn't merely a walk down memory lane. It serves as a stark contrast to the current administration, which thrives upon being anti-media, the same media Reagan once embraced. There were gives and takes. But the media was there to balance the powers that be. Reagan knew it well, and so did the media. Their uneasy but cordial dance continued all throughout his presidency.

We live in an increasingly hostile media environment. Everything is extremely black and white. Infotainment overshadows journalism and the public perception of the media is at all-time low. It is very difficult to be seen as neutral by association or affiliation. But it is very important to remember that even Reagan, a highly divisive figure, was regularly grilled by the people who are now regarded as partisan hacks. It didn't use to be that way. There was mutual respect. The film is a good reminder of that.

A presidency is an every four-year event. It's a blip in history. We do not need to resort to a sketch artist in the White House press briefing. Hopefully we will restore some of that mutual trust and respect soon.

The Reagan Show opens on Friday, June 30 at Metrograph in New York and Laemmie Monica Film Center in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow and VOD on July 4.