Early on in director Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, there’s a quote that perfectly underscores how his legacy as a pragmatic centrist has been misrepresented to justify far right policies since his death in 2004.
“Someday it might be worthwhile to find out how images are created. And even more worthwhile to find out how false images come into being,” Reagan said in a 1975 radio broadcast. “All of us have grown up accepting with little question certain images as accurate portraits of public figures – some living, some dead. Seldom do we ever ask if the images are true to the original.”
The audio clip is one of many instances in Reagan when the late 40th U.S. president becomes a prescient commentator on his own life.
“He ended up becoming, at several points in the film, sort of our savior in terms of telling the story,” says Jarecki over the phone from New York. “Very often, whenever we were struggling at the editing console [we] could always say, ‘Let’s go to Reagan. He’s definitely going to contribute something interesting.’”
Reagan will make its broadcast debut tonight (Monday) on HBO, one day after what would’ve been Reagan’s 100th birthday. Jarecki had the idea to create the definitive documentary about the subject while researching the history of American militarism for Why We Fight, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2005. He first brought the film to producers at BBC Storyville and then to HBO, both of whom agreed it was time to take a measured look at Reagan’s life.
“I had no idea how significantly Reagan’s thoughts and the phenomenon of Reaganism influenced America until making that film,” he says. “For all the people who talk about Ronald Reagan, for all the attention paid to him in American politics and in our discussions everyday, I was surprised how little people actually know about him – how little I know about him.”
The film opens with images from Reagan’s state funeral and various public figures and pundits from both sides of the political spectrum invoking his name. Through interviews with his sons Ron and Michael, his biographer Edmund Morris, prominent conservative Grover Norquist and members of Reagan’s cabinet, such as his chief of staff James Baker, economic advisor Arthur Laffer and secretary of state George Schultz, the director charts Reagan’s expansive public life, from his acting career and stints as head of the Screen Actors Guild and General Electric spokesman to his California Governorship and eight-year presidential term.
Encapsulating the life of a man Jarecki calls “one of the most filmed people in history” took the better part of two and a half years. In addition to an enormous amount of archival research, the interviews were lengthy and far-reaching. He aimed to get the definitive interview on Reagan with each of his subjects and then allowed their commentaries to drive the narrative.
“There’s a special art to trying to do it without a narrator. The benefit of it is you end up with a far more democratic result,” he says. “You end up with a chorus of voices interweaving to provide a complex, textured consensus rather than one single voice, which is much easier to do because you can simply write a script and have someone read it and then basically run a slide show alongside it.”
The portrait that emerges is of a man instrumental in making conservative ideas palatable to the American public through his relatable, folksy demeanor; a man with a deep affinity for working class America but whose economic policies occasionally proved injurious to that constituency.
Though he was charismatic when he needed to be, Reagan wasn’t very introspective when it came to his own life and had few close friends aside from his wife Nancy, making him a somewhat elusive figure. It’s this mysterious quality that Jarecki believes has allowed people like Sarah Palin to project their own ideals on to him.
Jarecki, who describes himself as an “Eisenhower Republican” disillusioned with unsustainable policies of both major political parties, says today’s Republicans simply do not want to hear, for example, that Reagan had gay friends, provided amnesty for illegal immigrants, raised taxes six out of his eight terms, contributed to the deficit and negotiated with governments perceived as America’s enemies.
“I found myself actually finding that I needed to defend him from the misuse of his legacy by people who really do have insane and totally untested and uniformed views about American governance,” says Jarecki. “I had to protect him from them because they use him simply because they want to sell those notions on the American public, whether he would’ve agreed or not.”
Or, as Ron Reagan says in the film, his father was “smarter and better than many on the left think he was and less the giant than many on the right think he was.”
Reagan airs Monday, Feb. 7 at 9pm EST on HBO. Watch the trailer below: