The Reagan Show – an absorbing portrait of a master communicator in the White House

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The Reagan Show is a CNN Films movie released in the UK earlier this month. After showing in a few cinemas it is now available on iTunes, Sky, Amazon, GooglePlay and YouTube.

The film uses the mountain of archive “behind-the-scenes” and in-front-of-the-scenes footage recorded during the Ronald Reagan Presidency. There are some great clips and there is a particularly compelling portrait of his work with Mikhail Gorbachev to eventually sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. We’re reminded that Gorbachev too was a showman, and that the two struck up quite a close working friendship.

When he arrived at the White House, Reagan had not only been an actor in 53 B Movies, but he had been a sports broadcaster, a union leader and a spokesman for General Electric. Significantly, he had also been Governor of California for eight years. So he had quite a CV.

Of course, Reagan had his faults and his politics aren’t my politics. He was certainly trigger happy – and that was shown in the film. He invaded Grenada without so much as a by-your-leave from its Head of State, our Queen. Not for nothing did Private Eye and others refer to him as “Ronald Raygun”. And there were always rumours that he was disengaged from the actual work of the president (that is, not the PR bit) – culminating in Spitting Image’s “The President’s Brain is missing“.

The film shows Reagan wriggling under questions about the Iran Arms-for-hostages “Contra” affair. And then we see him come up with this beaut from March 1987:

A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.

It is a bizarre, disingenuous attempt to use his normal bonhomie to wriggle out of saying: “I lied”.

The film shows some interesting aspects of Reagan’s “game” of “staging”. While recording a film for New Hampshire voters, we see him making several incorrect attempts to pronounce the name of his “friend” John Sununu. That is very funny. Then we are shown the standard Reagan technique to avoid reporter’s questions: Arrange to be photographed smiling and waving, at a distance from reporters, on the way to a helicopter, which has its engines making a lot of noise. That way, no matter how loud the reporters shout their questions (and, boy, do they shout) he can’t hear them and can fall back on the old trick of holdings his ears and mouthing “I can’t hear”.

He also seems to engineer outdoor situations where he doesn’t wear his overcoat. And a lot of attention seems to be paid to “marks”, backdrops, retakes and timing. When he leaves office, he doesn’t just walk out of the Oval Office. He does each bit several times, pausing to ensure the photographers have got their shots, then waiting for his cue for the next bit, etc.

So, it is all a bit false and “staged”. That said, he was a very good speaker. The following clip shows his speech when he returned from signing the INF in Russia. It really is quite moving:


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