Reagan Gets the HBO Treatment

Eugene Jarecki's documentary Reagan—debuting Monday on HBO—tries to illuminate the popular president. Lloyd Grove on whether there is anything left to say—or is Reagan just impossible to really know.

02.05.11 8:24 PM ET

Ronald Reagan was plainspoken and sunny in public—a Great Communicator to hundreds of millions around the world. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" he famously exhorted at the Brandenburg Gate—the battle cry of the Cold War that prefigured the collapse of the Berlin Wall and, in turn, Soviet Communism.

But, at his private core, America's much-celebrated 40th president was unknowable and unreachable, even to his official biographer. After spending hours with the man, Edmund Morris was so perplexed by the impenetrability of his subject's inner life that felt forced to invent a fictional Reagan confidant in Dutch, his authorized biography, in a rash attempt to explain it. Morris was rewarded with a stack of outraged reviews accusing him of twisting history.

"To try and interview this guy, who was so incurious about himself, was very unrewarding," Morris complains in Reagan, Eugene Jarecki's two-hour documentary which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO—the day after the actor-turned-politician would have turned 100. "He would tend to take refuge behind anecdotes and jokes. I just got this echoing sound—that I was talking into a large, rather cool cave."

More than two decades after his presidency ended, the man remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill once said about Russia, the "evil empire" of Reagan's vibrant political imagination.

Jarecki, like Morris, fails to unlock the mystery of his secret psyche, although the filmmaker wrangled an impressive roster of witnesses willing to speculate for his camera—notably Reagan administration cabinet members George Shultz and James Baker (who calls his onetime boss "an extraordinarily beautiful human being"), Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, former CBS anchorman Dan Rather and son Ron Reagan, who provides a narrative arc of eloquent commentary on his father's life and times.

It's just possible, of course, that the real secret of Reagan's soul was his inclination to skate on the smooth, bright surface and never yield to the temptation to investigate demons lurking below.

Ron's older brother Michael, the adopted son from Reagan's first marriage to actress Jane Wyman, is shown leading a bus tour of the president's hometown of Dixon, Illinois, and otherwise trying to make a living promoting his father's legacy. "Days and nights like this make me feel so happy that when I was available for adoption, the [Jimmy] Carter family wasn't also looking," Michael jokes to a banquet of acolytes. Patti Davis, the third surviving sibling (Maureen, Mike's older sister, died of cancer in 2001), apparently never received Jarecki's interview request. She appears as a toddler in a G.E. commercial. Her 89-year-old mother, Nancy—who, out of gallantry, Jarecki didn't press for an interview—is a spectral presence, appearing in archival footage to bathe her husband in that famous adoring gaze when not watching out for users and flatterers, or resting her head on the coffin lid at his state funeral in June 2004.

Jarecki makes clever use of the massive video and film archive of Reagan's career as a radio announcer, Hollywood actor ("not a great actor, but a good actor," Ron says), Screen Actors Guild president (and FBI informant on suspected commies in the movie biz), General Electric shill, radio commentator, California governor and Leader of the Free World. Indeed, Reagan returns from the grave to function as the documentary's master of ceremonies. "Someday it might be worthwhile to find out how images are created," he muses at one point, articulating Jarecki's central theme of mythologizing public figures (coincidentally enough, in one of his radio commentaries), "and even more worthwhile to learn how false images come into being."

It's just possible, of course, that the real secret of Reagan's soul was his inclination to skate on the smooth, bright surface and never yield to the temptation to investigate demons lurking below. Regarding his drunken shopkeeper of a father, Lou Cannon observes: "The successful child of an alcoholic is able to repress all of the tough stuff and concentrate on what's positive."

The documentary contains no revelations—this is, after all, well-plowed ground—and Jarecki is scrupulously fair in presenting Reagan's rise from Hollywood to the White House and his action-packed presidency, which included getting shot, busting the air-traffic controllers' union, practicing supply-side economics, and negotiating arms reductions with Mikhail Gorbachev.

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In a peculiar editing choice, Jarecki interrupts the narrative to cut repeatedly to an aging cargo prop-plane in flight—apparently a reference to the Iran-Contra scandal (illegally trading arms for hostages with Iran and using the profits to send weapons to opponents of the leftist Nicaraguan Sandinistas) that nearly destroyed President Reagan's second term. Reagan initially denied the criminal acts he'd approved, but was ultimately forced to admit error in a televised speech. "My heart and my best intentions tell me that's true," he said by way of justifying his denials—which might impolitely be called lies—"but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

There was never a better illustration of Reagan's remarkable relationship with reality: If he wanted something to be true, he could simply will it so through the power of positive thinking.

"That 'shining city on a hill' business," Ron says, "he really meant it. He really felt that." Noting that his father, as a teenage lifeguard, pulled 77 distressed swimmers out of the Rock River in Dixon, Ron adds: "He grew up seeing himself as somebody who saved people's lives…America needed rescuing, and he was the guy to do it."

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.