Sundance (Out of Competition, Documentary Premiere) – Documentarian Eugene Jarecki examines the life and legacy of the fortieth US President, Ronald Reagan. As with earlier subjects, does Jarecki engage in hard-hitting analysis? Or, asks Kimberly Gadette, does he keep the gloves on?
In June 2004, the state funeral of the fortieth President of the United States went on for several days – first in California and then in Washington, DC. Over that seven-day period, as well as now, nearly seven years after his passing, the accolades for Ronald Reagan continued to grow. Republicans think of him as the father of their movement ... and they are indeed correct. By changing from liberal Democrat to union buster to conservative pitchman for the GE Corporation, it was Reagan who turned America into the corporate oligarchy it is today, ensuring tax breaks for the rich while instigating an anti-big government platform. (Leading to budget cuts for such Democrat-based programs as Medicaid, education and the environment.)
The opening tone is ironic, ending with a voiceover of Reagan himself, warning against the creation of false images. Boomeranging right back at you, Ronnie.
What's utterly confounding about this piece is that the onetime hard-hitting Jarecki of such tough work as Freakonomics (his cinematic chapter, "It's [Not Always] a Wonderful Life," delved into the way that abortions prevented a major crime wave), Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger has gone soft. He tap-dances from one side to the other, never quite settling on a point of view. While it's not surprising to see the president's son Ron Reagan trying to pick his way through a potential minefield, wanting both to celebrate his father and address his failings honestly, what's Jarecki's rationale?
We expect our political documentaries to have a strong point of view ... what we don't expect is the kind of light history lesson that we can glean from Wikipedia. Ron is much braver than Jarecki, bringing up his father's undercover role with the FBI in naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as his shameful avoidance of the early AIDS crisis. As he explains, his father always needed to have a personal face on a disaster in order to understand it. Ergo, AIDS meant nothing to Reagan until his close friend Rock Hudson died.
Even HBO's air date bespeaks a certain homage, with the pay television channel airing the program one day after the one-hundredth anniversary of Reagan's birth. Cue the naming of yet one more institution in President Reagan's name.
As for the rest of us, we're still looking for a strong examination of the eight years of the Reagan presidency ... told with some clear-eyed, unflinching truth.
Rating on a scale of 5 trickled-down documentaries: 2.5
Release date: US (on HBO): 7 February 2011; UK: TBD
Written and directed by: Eugene Jarecki
Featuring: Ron Reagan, James A. Baker, Pat Buchanan, Arthur Laffer, Grover Norquist, Michael Reagan, Edmund Morris, Thomas Frank
Running time: 120 minutes