In its sprightly opening minutes, Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s film stirs laughs and small insights: Witness the Gipper, at his Santa Barbara ranch, serving as something like the second-unit director of his own photo shoot. “I’ve got an idea for another picture,” he says, grinning goonily in his cowboy shirt — clearly he loves this stuff. His brainstorm: Nancy, who already has expressed some distaste at being coerced into horseback riding for the cameras, will stand in front of a scrawny tree, protecting it from Reagan, who will pretend to be trying to hack at it with a chainsaw. She demurs, at first, until he reassures her — the chainsaw won’t be on.
Those tree photos — awkward, clownish, decidedly un-epochal — never penetrated the public consciousness. But his fleeting inspiration might be the most revealing moment in this doc’s reels of new and little-seen footage. Here is Reagan as child and mythmaker, as cosplay cowboy and presidential auteurist, his staging of a George Washington tree-chop scene duded up in John Ford drag but playing as B-movie comedy. If the American right were still pushing to put the Gipper on money, this might be the image to pick.
The Reagan Show offers other winning behind-the-scenes moments captured on White House cameras, from which the administration sourced its steady releases of upbeat B-roll. We see Reagan record multiple takes of a campaign ad for his “friend” John Sununu, then running for governor in New Hampshire, but the president, to his mild exasperation, can’t make all those Us and Ns in the candidate’s name come out right. Reagan carps, “Why the hell is his name — ” before the footage cuts out and the next attempt begins, just as it might have on Dick Clark’s concurrent TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes. Another scene finds Reagan cracking a joke at one of those pardon-the-turkey Thanksgiving ceremonies; when it doesn’t land, he says, “I think maybe I came in too early,” as if he’s on set and everybody might let him keep trying until he gets it right.
President-as-performer is no fresh insight, of course. Working exclusively in collage mode, without present-day narration, Velez and Pettengill strive to link their footage to the now. In a vintage ABC This Week broadcast, Sam Donaldson warns of a day when presidents might first need to be TV stars, and it's perhaps inevitable that we see Reagan vow to "make America great again." That Trump, in his bad-cover-band way, seized this message is less an indictment of Reagan, “the TV president,” than it is of the Republican Party since 1988: Trump, a salesman, merely nicked effective copy from the last president the GOP base can admit lasting affection. Nothing in the film suggests persuasively that Reagan paved the way for Trump's debasement of the party and the office. For all the pitilessness of his agenda, Reagan the salesman harked back to Knute Rockne, All-American while peddling a gleaming Tomorrowland; Trump only hearkens to an idea of Reagan, to talk radio's most perverse Gipper fan fiction.
CNN produced the film, which means you can’t expect it to dig deep or advance an argument. After that lightly provocative start, The Reagan Show settles into a narrative driven not by fresh archival finds but by TV news reports. It breathlessly recounts the history of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, arranging the old footage for narrative suspense, not revelation. At times an idea threatens to form up — the filmmakers seem to want to suggest that Reagan's actorly craft proved instrumental to negotiations with the Soviets — but the video history lesson barrels right over it. I appreciate that the film reminds the world that conservative hardliners opposed Reagan and Gorbachev’s disarmament treaty, but The Reagan Show milks the treaty's last-minute senate ratification for climactic drama, not letting on that the vote was never truly in doubt. (The final tally: 93 for, five against.)
The president himself might have appreciated how the final reel here plays out. Asked at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal if his administration was washed up, Reagan promised that he planned to observe advice he’d picked up in Hollywood: "Save something for the third act." Rather than reveal a showman, The Reagan Show in the end imitates one.