An orgy of Ronald Reagan worship, including at the Super Bowl, will roll out today to mark the hundredth anniversary of his birth. For those who can stand to wait another day for a more evenhanded, though often critical, assessment, HBO will be airing Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, fresh from Sundance, titled Reagan, Monday night at nine.
Jarecki (left) is best known as the director of the acclaimed docs Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger (and, more recently Freakonomics). Reagan is an extremely well-made film, featuring some expected and some surprising talking heads, plus occasional spurts of fun provided by a Daily Show clip, Phil Hartman’s famous SNL skit portraying two faces of Reagan (public bumbler, private strongman) and even a Simpsons moment.
Reagan’s two sons take center stage. That would be the right-wing radio talk show ranter Michael Reagan (who was adopted) and the much more liberal Ron Reagan. Others interviewed include familiar Reaganites such as George Schultz, James Baker and Grover Norquist, and what Jarecki calls “honest brokers,” including Tom Frank, Andrew Bacevich, Will Bunch, Frances Fitzgerald, James Mann and Simon Johnson.
At Sundance, Jarecki admitted he had “an axe to grind,” but not so much to expose Reagan as a bad guy but to dispel various “myths” that absurdly enlarge—or diminish—him. He also revealed that he had received a fair amount of criticism from some who feel the film is too kind to Reagan. Indeed, its first half paints a favorable picture of the man’s early life and rise to the governor’s mansion in California, but the second half, on his presidency and fallout from it, proves largely critical. What that means is that viewers who like the first half are more likely to stick around and learn something in the latter sections.
“The Reagan sales pitch has been going on a long time,” Jarecki told me in an interview this week. “If people see the real Reagan they may learn a lot. What’s amazing is how much we are told about Reagan today is only half true,” if that.
Here are some highlights from my talk with Jarecki, who was in New York (he hails from Rye, and his brother is Andrew Jarecki, who made Capturing The Friedmans), this past Thursday.
On the Inspiration for the Film
The idea to “set the record straight” came to him after watching the massive coverage of Reagan’s funeral. He was working on Why We Fight, which he describes as a “film about Eisenhower and the latter half of the century and how the American military and the policy machine grew into such an out of control system. So I could not do that without looking at the incredible impact Reagan had on America. He’s so much a part of our American conversation.”