I finally got around to watching the 2011 HBO special on Reagan. It is a strange assemblage of clips and interviews that left me scratching my head through the first half of the documentary. I was trying to figure why retired Col. Andrew Bacevich played such a big role in this documentary. Turns out the war veteran is a well-respected political scientist who was one of the more outspoken opponents of the Iraq War, losing his son in 2007. Yet, in this documentary he offered a largely favorable opinion of Reagan in restoring confidence in the military.
Unfortunately, the director doesn't provide any background to the interviewees. Of course many of them you know like Michael and Ron Reagan, James Baker, George Schultz, Pat Buchanan and biographers Edmund Morris and Lou Cannon. The voices speaking on behalf of Reagan outnumber those critical of him. The best known critical voice was Robert Parry, who broke the story on Oliver North's role in the Iran-Contra affair, which dominates the second half of the documentary.
Morris turned out to be the most insightful, having noted the great deal of myth-making taking place since Reagan left office and how the modern conservative movement has made him into an icon, with Michael Reagan and Grover Norquist determined to get some kind of memorial of Reagan in every county in the country and have spear-headed efforts to get him placed on currency. Morris said that Reagan himself was virtually inaccessible, resorting to diversionary anecdotes whenever he confronted him with questions on his past.
It was Ron Reagan who noted that his father was very slow to react to the AIDS crisis, responding only when someone he knew, Rock Hudson, was stricken with the "mystery illness." He said his father needed a face to put to an issue. He couldn't identify with masses. Poverty to him was a matter of choice, which surprised Ron Jr. since his father grew up during the Depression and had championed the New Deal in his early years in Hollywood. But, understandably, Ron offered a generally favorable impression of his father.
I suppose Eugene Jarecki was trying to be objective given all the strong emotions attached to Reagan, but unfortunately this resulted in a rather superficial treatment of Reagan's time as pitch man for General Electric. His GE stint was apparently a very formative period, as it allowed him to travel the country and speak directly to people, honing his skills as the "great communicator." He repeatedly referred to himself as "Ronald Reagan, American Citizen" during these tours. It is noted that he no longer saw himself as a New Deal Democrat, having essentially become a corporate spokesman, which culminated in his successful run as a Republican for California governor.
The only directorial commentary seemed to be the music and movie clips Jarecki used to underscore some of Reagan's more dubious moments, such as his insistence on the Strategic Defense Initiative, which ground a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with the Soviet Union to a halt. Here, Jarecki used a couple of clips from propaganda films Reagan made with the Army Air Forces Motion Picture Unit concerning a "secret weapon." Apparently, Reagan was too near-sighted to see any combat duty.
Unfortunately, this film doesn't accomplish what it set out to do. Jarecki didn't provide any sharper focus on Reagan. Dutch remains a shrouded figure, largely of his own doing according to Edmund Morris and Ron Reagan, who both said the only person he was really close to was Nancy. You get the feeling that not even his own children knew him very well. Michael, who was adopted, seems to view his father in purely iconic terms. At least Ron reached for his father's more humane side.