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Since he shrank from public life
following his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease
in 1994, Ronald Reagan has become a sort of
mythic figure in American politics — especially
during the run-up to the former president’s
100th birthday on Feb. 9.

HBO’s new docufilm Reagan, directed by Eugene
Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Why
We Fight) seeks to puncture those myths and
reveal the man behind them through interviews
with an array of his closest confidantes and
biggest critics. It does so with a deft mix of
archival footage
and interviews
family members
and the
who covered

range mainly
from former
Secretary of
State George Schultz to liberal author Thomas
Frank (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) to son
Ron Reagan Jr., who sums up his dad thusly:
“My father was smarter and better than many
people on the left thought he was and less than
the giant that many people on the right thought
he was.”

And the film basically proves that thesis, while
tracking Reagan’s transformation from New
Deal liberal Screen Actors Guild president to
champion of the U.S. conservative movement,
chronicling such transformative moments as his
McCarthy-era reign over SAG and his stint as
spokesman for General Electric.

Through conversations with friends, associates
and Reagan biographers Errol Morris and
Lou Cannon, we hear about how leading SAG
during a time of communist “agitation” — and
a bitter strike — hardened his anti-communist
views, and how he learned retail politicking and
sharpened his future anti-government message
while working as an “ambassador” for General
Electric (he was eventually fired for refusing to
stop talking politics on GE’s behalf as the Kennedy
era began).

We also see how Reagan was perceived while
governor of California in the 1960s and ’70s
— as an angry figure railing against the counterculture,
a far cry from the genial profile he cut
while president. And we’re told that despite his
geniality, Reagan was a difficult man to get to

Particular attention is paid to the Iran-Contra
scandal that dominated his second term (it gets
slightly more screen time than “Reaganomics”
or his Gorbachev-era about-face on dealing with
Soviet Union), and it’s here where Reagan’s
complexity is most apparent.

Reagan mainly succeeds in its goal of separating
man from myth, and its quick pace and
compelling interviews make it an enjoyable