The Reagan Show
Sierra PettengillPacho Velez
USA, 2017, 74 minutes
As oblivious as we have become to shocking images, the cache of celluloid released this past March by California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory packs an all-too-relevant punch in the gut. Around 6,500 decomposing secret films of US nuclear tests taken between 1945 and 1962 were uncovered then restored by a team of experts. An initial set of sixty-four of these previously unseen shockwaves and fireballs were put up on YouTube the same month North Korea declared its intention to use its “treasured sword of justice,” nuclear force, against the United States.
«The Reagan Show never achieves any kind of definitive understanding about Ronald Reagan, man or myth.»
One black and white clip in particular, a hypnotically close angle of a 1957 nuclear test in Nevada named Diablo, goes beyond the usual grainy stock footage of atomic mushroom clouds taken from distant desert vantage points. Out of the blackness emerges a shattering explosion, intricate in nightmarish detail, which then seems to morph into the horrifying face of an enormous insect. It’s easy to understand why the US government chose to keep these films under wraps for decades. Imagine countless documentary filmmakers using this glimpse into the apocalypse to make a persuasive plea for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
The very same week cameras captured the terrifying vision of Diablo, thousands of miles away John Lennon first met Paul McCartney at a Liverpool garden party. The following morning after the Nevada blast, July 15, 1957, John Glenn made the first supersonic transcontinental flight from California to New York in just under three and a half hours. Perhaps a half-century from now, when doc makers set about chronicling the year 1957, these vivid black and white images will become a defining moment. One is left to wonder what closely guarded treasures still await discovery in classified vaults the world over.
«Their CNN-produced documentary, The Reagan Show, utilizes rarely seen footage taken during the conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan, the charismatic Hollywood actor turned leader of the free world.»
Like the Livermore scientists, directors Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez also gained access to countless hours of potential archive gold. Their CNN-produced documentary The Reagan Show utilizes rarely seen footage taken during the conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan, the charismatic Hollywood actor turned leader of the free world. From the outset, Pettengill and Velez utilize this mountain of material to draw parallels to Trump’s ongoing spectacle. Immediately after the filmmakers’ names have appeared in the credits, the doc cuts to a three-decade old clip of Reagan firing up a crowd with Donald Trump’s signature campaign pledge: “Together we’ll make America great again.”
To their credit, the filmmakers have drenched The Reagan Show in all the stylistic hallmarks of the 1980’s – from the opening scratch and pop of VHS grain to the swelling synthesizer strings that punctuate the former president’s private and public moments. The documentary itself is even structured like a Reagan-era, high-concept Hollywood blockbuster. Pettengill and Velez frame their narrative as if cold-warrior Reagan has a change of heart about the arms race with the Soviet Union after a viewing of the bleak television drama about nuclear war The Day After (1983).
TRUST BUT VERIFY
Much of The Reagan Show is devoted to the peace summits between the shrewd Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Reagan, or what one eager commentator calls, “the ultimate photo opportunity.” At these historic events, the White House cameras often reveal Gorbachev, twenty years Reagan’s junior, skilfully toying with and even occasionally teasing the stiff, square-jawed president.
«From the outset, Pettengill and Velez utilize this mountain of material to draw parallels to Trump’s ongoing spectacle.»
Midway into the doc, the filmmakers’ craft a comic montage made up of the numerous press conferences and interviews where Ronald Reagan reuses one of the few Russian phrases he knows, “Doveryai, no proveryai,” (Trust, but verify). The hilarious payoff comes when Gorbachev catches Reagan quoting it once too often. “You repeat that at every meeting,” says the Russian leader with a sly grin on his face. “I like it,” Reagan weakly replies.
POWER AND DELUSION
To continually support their Trump thesis, Pettengill and Velez have gleaned only the most ironic moments from the 1,500 hours of original White House footage. Audiences chuckle knowingly at the decade’s old street interviews with passers-by warning us that the Russians are not to be trusted and have already infiltrated the United States. Entertaining as this may be, The Reagan Show never achieves any kind of definitive understanding about Ronald Reagan, man or myth, in the way that Penny Lane’s dense, home-movie exploration of power and delusion Our Nixon (2013) was able to illuminate about another American president.
«The Reagan Show could have benefited from simply letting the trove of archival material breathe like a fine wine.»
If anything, The Reagan Show could have benefited from simply letting the trove of archival material breathe like a fine wine. Early on, the documentary shows a tantalizing five second snippet of Reagan meeting a “Thriller” era Michael Jackson, the celebrity duo posing for the clicking cameras in the Oval Office, pretending to be fascinated by the president’s family photos. Before we can wonder what happened next, the filmmakers quickly cut away to something else. The Reagan Show clocks in at a lean 74 minutes. The question is why.