The Magazine

Documenting Reagan

Another poor effort.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By CRAIG SHIRLEY
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But the documentary truly touches bottom when Weisman ridiculously claims that Reagan “brilliantly exploited the assassination attempt.” Reagan’s near-death experience is only dealt with in political terms, not spiritual, except for brief insights from Douglas Brinkley and former Democratic congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, who says the president handled the shooting with “a style and grace uniquely Reagan.”

Those who knew or have studied Reagan will recognize one giant omission in the film: There is no mention of how influential and important Nancy Reagan was to his career. Someone once said that if Reagan had wanted to be the best shoe salesman in the world, she would have made sure it transpired. It just so happened that he wanted to be president. Without her behind-the-scenes counsel, cajoling, and combat with those she felt were not helping “Ronnie,” he never would have won the White House.

Reagan’s character and philosophical maturation go largely unexamined. The redoubtable Ed Meese is there to explain his old friend, but other than cameos from Bud McFarlane, George Shultz, Peter Robinson, and Kiron Skinner, there are few identifiable Reaganites, or even people with an intimate understanding of the life and times of Ronald Wilson Reagan. There’s no one from the Reagan Ranch, the Reagan Library, or the family. There are no interviews with Fred Ryan, Jim Baker, Dick Allen, Lou Cannon, John Sears, Frank Donatelli, Peter Hannaford, Ken Khachigian, Jim Hooley, Joanne Drake, Dennis LeBlanc, Mike Reagan, or any of the dozens of other people who really studied, reported on, knew, worked for, and observed Reagan. Not even Peggy Noonan, who it seems is required to appear in every Reagan documentary, makes the cut. Only Brinkley gets the chance to attempt an explanation of the meaning of Reaganism beyond the man and his term of office.

The worst flaw of The Reagan Presidency is its moral equivalency between East and West. We see the inevitable footage of Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate telling Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” To the filmmaker’s credit, he also excerpts Reagan’s May 1988 speeches at Spaso House and Moscow State University, both arguably more consequential than his Berlin Wall declaration. But at no time in the three hours are the horrors of the Soviet regime recounted. There’s no mention of the Gulag, the ruthless treatment of Jews and many others, or the victims in Warsaw Pact countries and Afghanistan, where invading Soviet troops routinely murdered men, women, and children. The documentary dwells more on the accidental downing of an Iranian airplane by the United States in 1988 than all the atrocities by the Kremlin combined. It even finds a parallel between the Iranian incident and the Soviet shootdown of Korean Air Lines flight 007 in 1983, which killed hundreds, including a U.S. congressman.

The film won’t say that the West “won” the Cold War, but it repeatedly states that Reagan and Gorbachev “ended” it. Throughout, it refers to Mikhail Gorbachev as Reagan’s “partner,” and once as his “partner for change.” In fact, the Cold War ended in the same fashion as a referee calling a boxing match—because one fighter is getting pummeled so badly. Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II are barely mentioned. Lech Walesa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, and other towering figures in the global struggle against communism are airbrushed out of the 20th century.

Winston Churchill once refused a pudding offered at a dinner party, stating it “lacked a theme.” This new documentary on Reagan not only lacks a theme—it misses the essential theme of the era it examines. Perhaps 87 documentaries on the man who saw the fight against communism in starkly moral terms—and helped win that fight, one of the most important battles of his century, with moral courage—are not actually enough.

Craig Shirley is the author of two books on Reagan’s campaigns and the bestselling December 1941. The president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, he is a Reagan scholar at Eureka College and working on a book about his post-presidency.

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