Two docs, two different 'Reagans'
He was "Ronnie" to Nancy, "the Gipper" to the rest of us, and for eight years an overwhelming presence in all our lives. Ronald Reagan was genially familiar to some, coldly remote and unknowable to others. No one was neutral when it came to the 40th president of the United States, who was born 100 years ago Sunday.
But who was the real Reagan? To mark this anniversary, resolve the contradictions and - especially - celebrate the man, two major documentaries this week will explore his life and accomplishments. "Reagan" bows on HBO Monday, while History's biography (also called "Reagan") arrives Wednesday. The films are both admiring but sharply different. The former bends toward critical analysis, the latter is a straight-ahead narrative. Both offer evidence of a successful presidency, but little evidence in support of sainthood. Above all, they readily agree that the Great Communicator remains, nearly seven years after his death, a great communicator.
WHEN|WHERE Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO
REASON TO WATCH Skillful analysis of the Reagan image
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Fascinated - if not outright preoccupied - with the iconography of Reagan, the film begins with a rush of pictures that spans a half-century of public life. These quick-cut snapshots of how others perceived him segue to how Reagan saw himself.
He was born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill. The formative experience of his early life, says his son Ron, was being a lifeguard: "He grew up seeing himself as someone who saved lives, and that carried to his movies. He wanted to play the hero and took this all the way to the presidency. He saw America drowning."
Divided by chapters that move through his life - his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, the General Electric years that forged his conversion from FDR Democrat to Goldwater Republican, the California governorship, the presidency, Reagonomics, Iran-Contra and so on - "Reagan" ends with a sharp quick blow at modern conservatives who want to turn the man into a myth.
MY SAY This "Reagan" is far and away the superior of these two films, but that doesn't mean it's always the more evenhanded. The producer is Reagan admirer Eugene Jarecki - his critique of the U.S. war machine, "Why We Fight," was a Sundance grand prize winner some years ago - who argues that his legacy has been hijacked by tea party activists or neocons seeking to exploit their hero. This film - mostly successfully - works to establish Reagan as a real man with real world concerns, and more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.
But there's a bit of a juggling act going on as well. Jarecki wants to make this case while covering the whole record, and tends to overcorrect his course at times. There is a little too much emphasis on Iran-Contra, and too little on Reagan's handling of defense or U.S.-Soviet relations. While the interviews are all good, there is plenty of ax-grinding. Mark Hertsgaard, a writer on the environment, hasn't had much to say about Reagan in nearly a quarter of a century. He wasn't a Reagan fan then, and he's not one now.
BOTTOM LINE Thoughtful and well-produced
WHEN|WHERE Wednesday at 9 p.m. on History
REASON TO WATCH A no-nonsense look at Reagan's life and career
WHAT IT'S ABOUT History's "Reagan" covers his life and career, with interviews from former ABC News chief White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and - most noteworthy of all - Jerry Parr. "Jerry who?" you say. Parr was the Secret Service agent who hustled Reagan into a waiting limousine after shots rang out outside a Washington hotel. The assassination attempt frames this film, which argues - often persuasively - that Reagan's presidency was shaped by those few shocking seconds and the aftermath.
"When a guy gets up and takes a bullet and walks away with a smile," says David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst and former director of communications for Reagan, "people just think differently about him."
MY SAY Perhaps the first thing you should know about History's "Reagan" is that it was produced by the man behind "Pitbulls and Parolees," "Inked" and "WWII in HD." This isn't to suggest that Matthew Ginsburg is not a competent filmmaker, but he seems far more interested in telling a made-for-TV story than in exploring the legacy or trying to figure out who Reagan really was. This "Reagan" devotes about 30 seconds to Reaganomics, and even less to Iran-Contra. That's not because this is a hagiography, though it drifts perilously close at times. It's because these subjects don't make for good TV. HBO's version yawns when it comes to Reagan's negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, but this film luxuriates in them.
BOTTOM LINE Largely - OK, completely - uncritical, this is still a lively and engaging stroll through Reagan's life and times.
Reagan the actor: 8 of his films on DVD
BY DIANE WERTS, Special to Newsday
DVD SET Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection
MOVIES Eight discs come in a sturdy plastic flip-page case. Five titles were previously released together in the 2006 set Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection - "Knute Rockne All American" (1940), "Kings Row" (1942), "The Hasty Heart" (1949), "Storm Warning" (1951) and "The Winning Team" (1952). Three are added for this centennial package - "Dark Victory" (1939), "Desperate Journey" (1942) and the sole color film here, "Irving Berlin's This Is the Army" (1943).
HIGHLIGHTS He may be ranked high among U.S. presidents and cultural icons, but Reagan never reached the top in his pre-politics Hollywood years. Lacking the acting chops of a Humphrey Bogart or the powerful personality of a James Cagney (both fellow Warner Bros. contract players), Reagan relied on his good looks and casual Midwest charm, playing mostly the guy next door or the best friend.
He's top-billed in only one title ("The Hasty Heart") of these "8 impactful movies from the film career of our future president." Note that ungainly word "impactful." These films are by no means classics.
"Kings Row" still resonates, however, as both Reagan's finest performance and world-class melodrama. This noir nightmare is a riveting parade of small-town malice, delivered with the kick of a horror movie. Think '40s films were "clean"? Read between the (censored) lines for down-and-dirty depravity. (This is the one where a distraught Reagan cries, "Where's the rest of me?" after a deranged doctor has gone to work on his legs.)
Two sports biopics make good use of the former college athlete's physical skills - "Knute Rockne All American," in which Reagan's ill-fated footballer, George Gipp, joins Pat O'Brien's Notre Dame coach, and "The Winning Team," with Doris Day billed above Reagan's troubled Hall of Fame pitcher, Grover Cleveland Alexander.
EXTRAS Existing bonus features include the documentary "Warner at War," related short subjects/newsreels/cartoons, commentaries by "Army" co-star Joan Leslie and "Heart" director Vincent Sherman, plus original trailers lending context to the films' Hollywood era. Too bad this Centennial Collection adds no extras to put Reagan's career in its own historical perspective.
LIST PRICE $60 for eight discs, Warner.