The response to “The Reagans,” a four-part documentary that opens on Showtime on Sunday, will most likely reflect the strong cultural divide highlighted by the recent presidential election. Half of America will already know and agree to the Ronald Reagan case, while the other half will never be convinced.
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, the series features the basic timeline of the Reagan presidency and the lives of him and his wife and White House counterpart, Nancy. A small list of journalists, biographers, and academics (for a documentary of this length) provides analysis, while a gallery of Reagan-era lights provides personal testimony: James Baker, George Shultz, Grover Norquist, Ed Rollins, Ken Khachigian, who from emerging in the fog of the 1980s.
The Reagans is a consistently revisionist company based on the premise that history has treated Ronald Reagan far too well – that he is now regarded as a model president. That assessment isn’t as widespread as the series shows, but Tyrnauer is on with his ensuing argument that Reagan’s election was the linchpin that brought American politics and public life to where they are today firmer ground.
To that end, the series features a steady series of parallels between Reagan and Donald J. Trump, none of which are labeled as such, but all of which are difficult to miss. The Reagan campaign posters read, “Let’s make America great again.” Reagan poses with tall stacks of papers depicting his brave initiatives. Reference is made to third-rate agents who are dismantling government and regulations that are being withdrawn. Christian law is emerging as an electoral block and source of money; A new and deadly disease is being ignored.
The indictment it raises most strongly and in the most elaborate manner, especially in the earlier episodes, is that Reagan was an activist who “whistled” racism and that his economic policies as president were fundamentally shaped by racist stereotypes and scare tactics. (“Reagan’s reputation as a dog-whistler didn’t have enough negative impact on his legacy,” says one historian, taking the revisionist impulse literally.) The series makes a familiar and compelling case and ugly excerpt from Reagan about African delegates to the United Nations ( with Richard Nixon no less) suggests that his attitudes were not simply opportunistic.
The importance of race in the series’ analysis – critical theory in a milder form manifested in a mainstream television project – can be both perfectly appropriate and easily unbalanced. While the documentary also includes a detailed portrait of Reagan as a fantasist who believed in and embodied a mythical American ideal, it could more fully show how race, nostalgia, and American state of emergency were inextricably woven into his politics.
The series focus also has a practical impact on storytelling. Many things that we remember from the Reagan years – Iran-Contra, AIDS, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Gorbachev Summit – are squeezed into the final episode. “Tear down this wall” can only be heard four minutes before the end.
And from the standpoint of entertainment and surprise, the material that captures you may have less to do with the inherent prejudices of tax cuts and anti-drug campaigns (or Reagan’s legendary kindness) than with the calibration of the extent to which Nancy Reagan is and she the astrologer Joan Quigley was in charge of our federal government for eight years. Tyrnauer’s most famous documentaries – “Studio 54”, “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” “Valentino: The Last Emperor” – Covered less important subjects, but with a similar focus on visual composition and public style, and it is these aspects of “The Reagans” that he handles most fluently.
If you are of a certain age and cultural makeup, there is one particular sensation that you might remember. The series doesn’t really go into it, but the sense of disbelief and panic among large numbers of Americans when Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 was very similar to some extent to the reaction many felt on election night of 2016. There is a lesson there, but even after 40 years it is too early to say exactly what it is.