THE REAGAN SHOW: OUR COUNTRY WAS HIS STAGE (Sierra Pettengill & Pacho Velez, 2017)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Opens Friday, June 30
Taking its name from The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s 1998 satire in which Jim Carrey plays a character whose entire life is a reality television program, The Reagan Show posits the fortieth president of the United States as the first full-time made-for-TV leader and his two terms as the height of performance art. The film opens with a December 1988 ABC News interview in which David Brinkley asks outgoing president Ronald Reagan, “Did you learn anything as an actor that has been useful to you as president?” Reagan responds, “There have been times in this office when I wondered how you can do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” Writer-director Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and producer-director Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall, Cutie and the Boxer) gained access to archives that included what was known as White House Television (WHTV), raw footage shot by White House cameras that obsessively followed Reagan, reminiscent of how Richard Nixon audiotaped everything in the Oval Office. The WHTV clips go behind-the-scenes of the before, during, and after of major and minor events, depicting the cultivation of Reagan’s public image, molding him to look like a leader while choosing style over substance. “The White House has become more and more the stage, a theater, and the question has become, Are the television networks gonna manage that theater, are they gonna manage that stage, or is the White House gonna do that?” communications director David Gergen asks. The all-archival chronological film includes news reports and commentary by such journalists and political insiders as William F. Buckley, Andrew Young, Ted Koppel, Lyn Nofziger, Sam Donaldson, Chris Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, George Will, Tom Brokaw, George Shultz, Peter Jennings, Bill Plante, David Frost, Charles Kuralt, Joe Biden, and Howard Baker as they share their thoughts on Reagan the president and Reagan the media star.
The film, edited with a sense of humor by cowriter Francisco Bello, Daniel Garber, and David Barker, focuses on key aspects of Reagan’s two terms: his summits with new Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War, his development of the Star Wars SDI initiative, the arms-for-hostages crisis, and his relationship with the press and his wife, Nancy. The Great Communicator is seen rehearsing an endorsement for John Sununu in which he cannot pronounce Sununu’s name correctly, acting like a macho man on his ranch, meeting Michael Jackson and Mr. T, and pardoning turkeys for Thanksgiving. Pettengill and Velez also highlight telling scenes from some of Reagan’s films, explaining in a caption that he “was almost always typecast as the good-natured, all-American hero,” essentially preparing him for politics. In addition, there are numerous parallels to what is happening today, with a reality television star in the White House who plays hard and fast with the truth while the public grows concerned about nuclear war. “Together, we’ll make America great again,” Reagan declares at a rally. As White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver tells Barbara Walters, “It’s the staging, how you stage the message. It’s a game.” Five presidents later, it’s still a game we’re all playing, but who is winning and who is losing is up for debate. The Reagan Show opens June 30 at Metrograph, with Velez, Pettengill, and documentarian Matt Wolf participating in a Q&A following the 7:00 screening on June 30, Pettengill and director and producer Maxim Pozdorovkin after the 5:00 show on July 1, and Pettengill and cultural critic and Museum of the Moving Image associate film curator Eric Hynes following the 7:00 screening on July 2.