It’s like ‘Veep’ for ’80s kids.
History, any self-satisfied student of the last century will tell you, is more than just what happened. Hayden White, one of my favorites on the matter, reduces the subject to a series of rhetorical devices: explanations by emplotment, argument or call to ideological arms. Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s found footage collage of the Reagan Administration, The Reagan Show, absconds mostly with the latter two possibilities of historic narrative. It is the Reagan years purely as story, inviting you to do the ideological work yourself, at home. It begins, more or less, and rather arbitrarily, after Ronald Reagan’s reelection in 1984 and ends in the fury of the Iran-Contra scandal and the ratification of the INF Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Pettengill and Velez use this time to characterize the Reagan presidency as emblematic of the larger shift in American politics, a move toward the political figure as a media showman and away from whatever it was before. “I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor,” Reagan tells David Brinkley in one of his last interviews as president, a scene that The Reagan Show utilizes as prologue. The documentary expresses this both directly, giving us a reel of Reagan’s otherwise forgettable acting work, and atmospherically, taking us behind the scenes, so to speak, largely using footage the White House captured itself. The appeal is not unlike that of the brilliant intro to The Larry Sanders Show or, to use a more contemporary reference, most of Veep. Rough and fumbling camera work that convinces us we’re watching how the sausage is made.
This conspiratorial mindset is where The Reagan Show resonates with today’s viewer. The appeal our current president — nodded at when Pettengill and Velez intercut Reagan’s use of the phrase “Make America Great Again” to comic effect — makes to his base is that he, through his reality TV-informed snarkiness and oft-absurd Twitter feed, offers “the direct connection to the people that presidents always say they want and presidential aides always strive to prevent them from getting,” as Michael Kinsley noted a few months ago. In effect, and 30 years later, The Reagan Show mines the same territory for our 40th President.
Much of this, it needs to be said, is mined for jokes. The Reagan Show is, at its heart, a comedic portrait of a president, revealing him to be as petty and insecure as we all are. As a platform, that’s the basis of most stand-up or situational comedy and, through a campy editing style and scoring, this is how The Reagan Show plays out. We watch, for instance, Reagan struggle through many takes trying to pronounce the name of John Sununu, then a candidate for Governor of New Hampshire and later Chief of Staff to George H.W. Bush and a CNN pundit. Later, we overhear Reagan joke about forgetting to cancel a missile test. It’s a version of the joke we’ve seen before, the most-remembered centerpiece in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, wherein we watched another Republican president act unserious, reading My Pet Goat in the midst of a national emergency. But where Moore meant his footage as a damning indictment (the president! he’s just some schmuck!), Pettengill and Velez’s touch is light and, taken as a whole, humanizing (the president! he’s a person, too!).
Their choice of central storyline, the elevated fear of nuclear war during the Reagan Administration which was largely stoked by Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (i.e. “Star Wars”) and, to a lesser extent, the airing of The Day After on ABC, can’t help but feel anticlimactic. After all, it didn’t happen. The heckling of journalists about the president’s stance on nukes, which is how we see them in The Reagan Show, largely from the White House’s own cameras, feels, in that light, somewhat absurd: aren’t there more important issues out there than a nuclear war that isn’t going to happen? Most of the issues we remember the 1980s for—the AIDS epidemic, the proliferation of crack cocaine, the outsourcing of America’s industrial base — are barren from The Reagan Show. And that, itself, is a telling takeaway. As obsessive as press coverage of any presidency almost always is, lead on by the increasingly showy egos needed to win, the real story, the one people tend to remember anyway, will always be in the streets.