The Reagan Show, review – a behind the scenes doc with eerie modern relevance

Before Trump, we got the original made-for-TV president Ronald Reagan. This new archive footage based film is a timely and loaded look behind the cameras

For anyone over a certain age (this reviewer included), The Reagan Show will offer a peculiarly potent hit of nostalgia and cultural cringe. This archive-only survey of the administration of the 40th President of the USA is a time-capsule evocation of 1980s Americana in all its garish, unembarrassed excess – a parade of shoulder pads, big hair and Mr T, newly released from the vault and glowing afresh in the soft-focus blur of pre-digital videotape.

Directed by Sierra Pettengill and Pancho Velez, The Reagan Show draws heavily from material shot by White House staff, employed to document the new president’s daily activity (as well as news programmes of the day). Pettengill and Velez have secured terrific access to the White House footage, known by insiders as White House TV: there is no commentary, except for occasional titles, and the visuals, that often include outtakes and unguarded behind-the-scenes moments, are allowed to play out over long minutes and speak for themselves.

Don’t expect a glimpse of the ‘authentic’ Reagan: this is, more than anything else, the portrait of a consummate publicist fronting the ultimate PR campaign. What emerges from the compelling clips is a detailed account of the shaping of the image that Reagan beamed to America and beyond.

No one before Reagan had made quite such a success of politics as showbiz, creating an aura of glamour that obscured serious policy failings

From intricate preparations that lead up to seemingly throwaway photo ops – “Can we get some shots of him driving the tractor?” is typical of the comments hollered by unseen snappers – to rehearsing the pronunciation of politicians he’s required to endorse, this films pulls back the curtain, Wizard of Oz-style, to reveal all the pulleys and levers behind American politics of the period. And where is Reagan the man in all of this: he comes across like the actor he was, waiting benignly on stage as the theatrical edifice is positioned into place and before the director feeds him his lines (or, as is demonstrated here, his whip-smart, ever-watchful wife Nancy).

I don’t think any of this will come as a big revelation to Reagan’s detractors (or even his champions). The president made no attempt to hide his Hollywood background, and no one before him had made quite such a success of politics as showbiz, creating an aura of glamour that obscured serious policy failings like the Iran-Contra controversy (briefly featured here).

But there are some insights along the way. The film’s meticulous and strangely gripping survey of the arms reduction talks between Reagan and Gorbachev brilliantly capture the fear generated by the nuclear stand-off. It also offers a rare glimpse of psychological grit in the placidly vacuous image that Reagan projects: you sense he’s is affronted by the Soviet leader’s charm offensive of western audiences as much as any military might. “Is he trying to manoeuvre you in PR?” a journalist asks Reagan, one of just a few questions that penetrate his Teflon glaze of imperturbable folksiness.

Of course the film has an eerie relevance with the ongoing mayhem created by the 45th President playing as the background music. As Reagan prepares to leave office, one commentator astutely remarking that any politicians coming after him “are going to have to succeed first on television.” The Reagan Show’s very title expresses unease about the direction politics were going in the early 1980s, as if the presidency were a personality-led entertainment spectacle, with the commander-in-chief your jovial host (“here’s Ronnie…!”). Follow that logic, and it doesn’t take long before you get to the reality-TV ugliness of The Trump Show.

The Reagan Show is in cinemas from October 6