THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME
How Ronald Reagan Set the Stage for Our Reality TV President
‘The Reagan Show,’ a new documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, explores how the inventor of the “Make America Great Again” slogan gamed the system.
A president who first made his celebrity name in front of the cameras, and rose to power largely thanks to his comfort with—and shrewd ability to manipulate—the media. A man whose critics claim he’s a know-nothing propped up by those around him, and who prefers to vacation over studying up on policy specifics. A figure who uses staged photo opportunities and attention-grabbing quips to curry favor with his devotees and, in the process, to cement his public image. A person in love with the spotlight, where his use of nostalgia-pandering slogans and tough-talking soundbites help make him the beloved darling of the front page and nightly news.
Sound familiar? The Reagan Show certainly wants it to.
Premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s documentary doesn’t once mention our current commander-in-chief, Donald Trump. However, make no mistake about it: his specter looms large over this non-fiction look at Ronald Reagan, beginning with an opening montage clip of the Gipper coining the phrase “Make America Great Again.” This cannily assembled look at Reagan’s use of modern media for PR purposes plays like a virtual prequel to our contemporary state of affairs, showing us how we got here, and, more intriguingly, where we might be headed.
“There have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor,” confesses Reagan in his December 21, 1988, farewell interview with ABC News’s David Brinkley, and the ensuing material provided by The Reagan Show makes it clear why he’d feel that way.
Comprised from the innumerable hours of Reagan video shot by the White House during his eight-year Oval Office tenure (including copious behind-the-scenes moments), as well as news broadcasts from that era, Velez and Pettengill’s film is a work of found-footage commentary about the nature of our modern political paradigm. Which, as is laid bare by this candid collage, is predicated on leaders creating, cultivating, and solidifying their image through propagandistic means. As Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver bluntly puts it to Barbara Walters, “It’s…staging. How you stage the message. It’s a game, Barbara.”
Of course, the idea that Reagan was consumed with projecting Western macho strength and family-man sensitivity—as well as folksy grandfatherly charm—was ever-present even during his two terms. Nonetheless, The Reagan Show does a sharp job throwing into relief his conception of the presidency as merely another acting role. That’s evidenced in scenes of him flubbing the pronunciation of John Sununu’s name in a commercial for Sununu’s New Hampshire governorship, and in his efforts to nail down how to pronounce a Russian-language phrase in a New Year’s TV message to the Soviets aimed at warming relations between the two nuclear-rival countries. After completing a subsequent taped Soviet greeting, Reagan states to those in the room, “Take that, Mr. Gorbachev”—an instance that reveals his use of the media as a vehicle for peaceful public diplomacy, as well as a sly weapon to push adversaries into ever-tighter corners.
In such episodes, many culled from “White House Television” segments produced by in-house staff, The Reagan Show illustrates how Reagan bolstered his political positions (and strength) by coopting the iconography of not only his past big-screen performances as noble Western Marshalls and Nazi-killing WWII soldiers, but also of the current fad of the day: Star Wars, whose title became the unofficial name of his “Strategic Defense Initiative.” Be it a frontier lawman, a wartime warrior, or an intergalactic hero (“The Force is with us”), Reagan sought to exude marquee-movie goodness, all while casting the Soviets in equally black-and-white terms via the Star Wars-esque moniker “The Evil Empire.” When David Frost likens Reagan’s presidency to that of a Hollywood studio (where hits are followed by misfires are followed by comebacks), one gets the sense that even the media—which knew what Reagan was up to—was somewhat complicit in allowing him to play his surface-over-substance game.
In the sense that Reagan viewed the political process as “theater,” and that he often seized control of his image from the media—who would sometimes be denied access to him, save for waving-while-walking-to-and-from-vehicles photo ops—The Reagan Show reveals how the 40th president established a template that would be followed by each of his successors, and has reached its most extreme exploitation (to date) with our current president. This is especially true when it comes to Reagan and Trump’s shared fondness for promoting a vague idea about returning to a prior, glorious “shining city on a hill” past, even when that yesteryear’s gloriousness is debatable and, more to the point, is never returning. In such audio-visual nostalgia, meant to placate and soothe in order to avoid any confrontation of unpleasant present-day circumstances, the two are kindred spirits.
And yet as much as it highlights their similarities, The Reagan Show also illustrates how, despite their comparable media instincts, these two presidents are far from equals. That’s evident in Reagan’s forceful line readings versus Trump’s meandering pulpit statements (the difference between a trained, lifelong movie actor and a reality TV show host). It’s apparent in Reagan’s reliance on wife Nancy for support and guidance (both in front of and behind the cameras) versus Trump’s treatment of Melania as a glorified fashion model prop that he stores back in New York. It’s clear from Reagan’s deft ability to deliver catchphrases that had both powerful immediate media play and lasting impact on the geopolitical landscape (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) versus Trump’s misspelled 3 a.m. tweets. And, ultimately, it’s in Reagan’s clearly heartfelt love for America, versus Trump’s clearly heartfelt love, above all else, for himself.
That last facet is most apparent in The Reagan Show’s depiction of the media war waged between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev over their nuclear-disarmament treaty—a battle that would eventually see Reagan receiving unexpected backing from liberals and inciting enraged condemnation from conservatives over his staunch pursuit of peace. Given Reagan’s current status as a borderline-holy icon of the 21st century right-wing, it’s a telling reminder that, no matter a commander-in-chief’s media manipulations, presidential stories are written in the moment but finalized long afterwards. What that means for how history will view our current commander-in-chief once he’s done whipping up 24-hour news cycle maelstroms, however, remains the ominous question that lingers long after Velez and Pettengill’s film is over.