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 with Reagan's associates, family members and the journalists who covered him.
Interview subjects 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 know.
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 watch.
Reagan premieres Feb. 7 on HBO at 9 p.m.