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The Reagan Show is a terrifically entertaining — and unnerving — take on a presidency

The documentary uses outtakes from the stash of “the Great Communicator” to tell his story and suggest its connections to today.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as a three-part TV show.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Reagan Show does something that counts as a radical act these days: It looks back at history — actual history — by letting historical footage speak for itself, without any talking heads to tell us what to think. And rather than explicitly drawing the lines between events in the 1980s and America’s politics in 2017, it trusts the audience to do that for themselves.

The film chronicles the Reagan administration, building its narrative entirely through news reports and footage shot by the administration itself. It takes the president’s former work as an actor and one of his common nicknames — “the Great Communicator” — as its jumping-off point, opening with a very prescient-seeming clip of Reagan telling newscaster David Brinkley, at the end of his time in office, that “there have been times in this office when I wonder how you could do the job without having been an actor.”

Through such footage, The Reagan Show makes the case that the former actor’s onscreen experience was a perfect training ground for his presidency. Reagan’s administration, it explains in one of the film’s few captions, is remarkable for its unprecedented use of film and television to document his presidency — so much so that it generated more footage than the previous five administrations combined.

That footage is a gold mine for directors Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez. There are shots of Reagan recording a friendly New Year’s greeting to the Soviet people, then uttering, “Take that, Mr. Gorbachev” while the camera’s still rolling. There are outtakes of him speaking more freely than he ever did on camera, cut in with more traditional news footage that interprets the events taking place.

The film’s arc is that of a three-act TV movie, and it not-so-subtly suggests that Reagan — a Hollywood veteran known for playing the affable good guy — consciously structured his years in office on the same principles and story elements that Hollywood films have long used to keep fans engaged. The main plot points are the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. Star Wars), the Iran-Contra scandal, and Reagan’s talks with Mikhail Gorbachev — each a dramatic world affair that served as both an “act break” in the presidency and gave new shape and meaning to the legacy Reagan was hoping to leave behind when his presidency reached its finale.

The film is critical of Reagan, to be sure, bringing in voices that question his control of his own administration and his ability to actually make decisions; the implication is that he may have been more glitz than substance, with others doing the heavy lifting.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in The Reagan Show
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in The Reagan Show
CNN Films

But there’s admiration and maybe even nostalgia mixed in, even if it feels like a prophetic omen. (The Reagan Show drops in a few clips of the president talking about “making American great again,” to connect the dots). If it is actually true that Reagan was mostly a showman, he was good at keeping the seams of his performance from showing. And if you’re going to pick something to structure your presidency on, it seems to suggest, maybe a movie — which ideally has narrative coherence — is a better model than reality TV.

What keeps The Reagan Show from becoming a polemic is one brilliant move: Save for a few explanatory captions, there’s not one present-day talking head or commentator present in the film. Figures from today’s politics and media show up, of course, but only because they were part of the story back then. There’s nobody sitting in 2017 reflecting on what it was like to live in American in the 1980s. Instead, all we see is real-time media reports and footage. The film lets history comment on itself. And so, rather than coming off as a condescending “told you so,” the film makes us feel like it’s letting us in on the secret.

It turns out reflecting on the past is a terrific way to cast light on the present, and to offer some warning hints about the future. Adding talking heads might have made the film feel far too heavy-handed, but by letting the past speak for itself, The Reagan Show stays both sober and light on its feet.

The Reagan Show will release in theaters on June 30 and VOD on July 4, and will air on CNN soon after.

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