An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the broadcast time for "Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime." The program airs at 9 p.m. on Feb. 11 on WETA. This version has been corrected. (In an airing added later, the program made its local debut Sunday on MPT.)
Ronald Reagan at 100: 3 new documentaries take on an outsize reputation
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 4:21 PM
The 1980s seem to come and go without ever permanently going - sneaking back when your guard is down, in the form of Rob Lowe or the color teal, or while you're waiting in line at the Safeway as one more doleful refrain of "99 Luftballons" drifts from the sound system above.
But nothing sticks around like our collective memories of Ronald Wilson Reagan - fond and not-so-fond, ranging from the lingeringly repugnant to the full-on hagiographic.
As you've doubtless been made aware, Sunday is the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth. No '80s nostalgia can match that of forever-faithful Reaganites, who, it seems, spend their mornings renaming highways and middle schools for the 40th president, spend their afternoons agitating anew for smaller government and lower taxes, and spend their nights dreaming of Laffer curves and overflowing jellybean jars.
Three new documentaries on TV this week hope to capitalize on a centennial moment: One of these is artfully nuanced and intellectually curious, which means it's on HBO; one is a more dutifully crammed timeline, which means it's on the History Channel; and one, narrated by PBS "NewsHour's" Judy Woodruff (herself a White House press corps veteran from the Reagan days), is about the inescapable love grip and influence of first lady Nancy Reagan, on not only her husband but everything that went on around him.
All three projects merit watching, and together mesh into a sort of VH1-style "I Love the '80s" experience for news junkies or anyone for whom voodoo economics and the Iran-contra affair still produce steam. Rather than adding more glow on top of the glow, each documentary seems to suggest that we might at last be ready to view Reagan as . . . human. Or at least regard him on a human scale.
That alone is a refreshing change of pace. A very long-ago-seeming 22 years since he left office (and almost seven years since we buried him with highest honors), we've seemed mostly unable to separate truth from legend or have purposeful conversations about Reagan's politics, legacy and life story.
That could be because we're too busy screaming at one another about the Founding Fathers, mama grizzly bears and the plight of small-business owners. It's also because, as each documentary illustrates, we weren't entirely sure what to make of him during his presidency, either.
While these films are different in tone and journalistic purpose, each also makes clear that our thoughts about Reagan remain inviolably personal and even immune to factual analysis. He is "still seen through the prism of people's prejudices, for and against," Dan Rather observes in filmmaker Eugene Jarecki's "Reagan," which premieres Monday night on HBO.
You know the story, or at least its outlines: that idealized, up-from-nothing heartland origin tale that leads from the lifeguard stand to the back lots of studio-system Hollywood. Then a combination of anti-communist zeal and Reagan's conversion into a corporate pitchman for General Electric leads to a changed man - a politician who sets his sights on Sacramento and Washington, from the "rendezvous with destiny" speech on Barry Goldwater's behalf in 1964 to the famous "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin in 1987 that is credited with ending Soviet-style communism. Finally, a slow horseback trot into the sunset of Alzheimer's, toward the great conservative hereafter.
The above paragraph is a mere example of what Reagan can do to us: The act of describing him instantly encourages outsize mythology. Even his official biographer, Edmund Morris, ended up relying on fictive wonder as a narrative solution.
Jarecki's "Reagan" is a compellingly watchable and appropriately conflicted portrait, and easily the most entertaining Reagan-related project coming at us this month. It has an edge to it that will accommodate viewers who bring a less-than-thrilled memory of Reagan to the table, but it also has Grover Norquist, so there. (And James Baker and George Shultz.)