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Correction to This Article
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

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.)

From the first moments, "Reagan" conjures a usefully symbolic barrage of archival footage: screen tests from the late 1930s, Bonzo the chimp, missile warheads, Sandinistas picking through the wreckage of the Hasenfus plane, cheering supporters in cowboy hats, masked terrorists, balloons cascading from convention ceilings and California ranch brush meeting the symbolic chain saw. All of it leading up to a modern-day cacophony, where Republican politicos must invoke Reagan's name as a way of establishing ideological bona fides; even Democrats (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, facing off in the 2008 primary season) bicker about whether or not it's okay to admire him.

Of course it's okay, but perhaps a little goes a long way. Michael Reagan, at 65, the president's son from his first marriage to Jane Wyman, is seen industriously fluffing his father's legacy, narrating bus tours and cracking outdated Jimmy Carter jokes to guffawing fundraiser dinner crowds. Jarecki gets much more access to younger son Ron Reagan, now 52, who has just come out with a memoir ("My Father at 100"), and who, over the years, has evolved into generous yet frank authority on his father's personal and political complexities.

Jarecki's film is exceptionally organized and pretty fair - though something tells me it won't delight more conservative viewers, especially when left-leaning authors such as Will Bunch ("Tear Down This Myth") and Thomas Frank ("What's the Matter with Kansas?") surgically diagnose the ways in which the sunshine message of Reaganomics seduced the working middle class, to its own detriment. The film also manages to scintillate the basics of the Iran-contra affair in a way that makes it feel freshly scandalous.

Another "Reagan," this one a two-hour affair airing on History Channel on Wednesday night, organizes itself around the March 1981 assassination attempt by John Hinckley - one more anniversary, the 30th, is just around the corner. Shots go off at the Hilton and we flash back to Reagan's Illinois boyhood, working our way forward as he undergoes surgery.

History Channel's "Reagan" is a sturdily built timeline, making use of much of the same footage, talking points and talking heads that Jarecki does, only with less nuance. It also manages, in its equanimity, to paint a less flattering portrait. Facts and footage don't always do the Great Communicator any favors, even though he was supremely telegenic and personable. (As early as 1964, he is seen on camera saying that the millions of Americans then going to bed hungry each night "were on a diet.")

A callousness keeps pulling our attention away from Reagan's warmth and grandfatherly reassurances. Ron Reagan describes it best, how his father could relate to individual suffering on a personal level, but rarely in the abstract, as statistics. It was this, the son surmises, that enabled the president to ignore the AIDS crisis for most of the '80s, even as it claimed his friend Rock Hudson.

"Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," from the folks at PBS's "NewsHour," airs Friday night on WETA. More gentle in tone, it also offers some fresh thoughts and recollections from Mrs. Reagan herself, now 89, and does not hesitate to describe the scope of her influence in White House affairs. Indeed, those who are still alive to talk about it seem more free now to not mince words: Nancy had a hand in nearly everything, far beyond the popular images of her fashion, decorating and astrological tastes.

Yet somehow "Nancy Reagan" accomplishes the neat trick of sentimentality without sap. It manages to cover just as much historical territory in about half the time of the other two films. In a way, it subliminally suggests that in another four or five decades, the only story that will interest anybody is the love story between Ron and Nancy.

But it is Jarecki's film that most accesses the vibe of the '80s, down to its use of new-wave classics such as the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" ("And you may tell yourself/This is not my beautiful house") and the aforementioned "99 Luftballons," a vaguely anti-nuke love song by German pop star Nena.

Here, Jarecki brushes up against the '80s I personally remember - a decade in which all the good pre-apocalyptic art and punk rock ("Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" by the Ramones!) and AIDS protests emanated from a mutual loathing of a president who seemed painfully detached.

This was Reagan's strange gift to Generation X, resulting in the best music videos and dystopic worldviews. The Gipper was a giver - bestowing sunshine upon an idealized America, even to those who resisted it. Jarecki's film ends with a rousing rendition of "Seasons in the Sun," a hell's jukebox hit from a time when Reagan was governor of California and his rejuvenating "Morning in America" was just around the corner. That song has never sounded more wonderful and unnerving all at once, or more historically apt.

stueverh@washpost.com

Reagan (102 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Reagan (two hours) airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on History Channel.

Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (one hour) airs Friday at 9 p.m. on WETA.

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