One of America’s top documentarians takes on one of America’s most iconic figures in Eugene Jarecki’s Reagan, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week and hits HBO tonight. Paste sat down with Jarecki at the Caledonian Hotel in Park City.
Paste: I thought the first half of the film worked really, really well, as we were getting to know who Reagan is. What I was really hoping for was that the second half of the move would be more explicitly informed by the first half. Once he becomes president, and we go into some of his policy decisions and such, that it would more explicitly tie into what we’d learned about him as a person. To me the most thrilling part of the movie was when Ron Reagan talked about the Iran-contra affair, and Reagan’s lifeguard mentality, and how that might have caused that decision. Tell me about the decision not to go in that direction.
Jarecki: Let me reflect on that a bit. We got to know Reagan not only through people who knew him, but also through a lot of private filmed material we were able to see thanks to the Reagan Library and others who had material that’s not really been seen, and also the public material – the movies, the commercials, the television shows, his entire political life. There’s definitely a movie you could make that would be, essentially, Atomic Café goes Reagan, where basically everything you do would be about the way in which his incredibly prolific life as an artist and a political figure is at all times a sort of surreal refraction of what’s going on in reality. An example we have in the movie is when one of our commentators reflects on the probability that the whole Star Wars concept of intercepting incoming missiles before they reach their target on American soil could have been inspired by a movie Reagan was in, in the 1940’s, called Murder in the Air, in which the “Inertia Projector” was this brand new piece of 1950’s Cold War technology that could shoot down incoming attacks out of the sky. The idea that Reagan was in such a movie and then forty-odd years later he’s pursuing that as the national policy of the country is terribly interesting, and appeals to that part of us which is titillated when life imitates art. And one could have made a movie which was back-to-back with that kind of refraction and parallel. And it would have been exciting and interesting and entertaining. And we started to make that movie at times. And there are artifacts of that movie in the final version that we created. I think the reason I didn’t go that way is that the portrayal of Reagan that has come to the public over the years has ranged from the hagiographic and hyperbolic, where he is turned into a symbol of all that has ever been good and virtuous on this planet since the damn of time; or mockery, where people make fun and light of his foibles, his manner of speech, his catch-phrases, the doddering side of the oldest president in American history when elected. And I felt that I was neither planning to make a blindly hagiographic work, nor was I making an ill-intended work. When I wanted to find out about the real Reagan, it wasn’t out of any kind of malice, it was out of the same tough love that I know Reagan would want me to show to anything having to do with the best interests of this country. And so we chose carefully those aspects of his upbringing to use. We thought there was an element of the spirit of a lifeguard in decisions he later made in his life, where he was driven by a desire to save people. That’s a vestige I wanted to underscore. We then saw that he inherits an anti-Communism after World War II that dominates the rest of his life; it’s the shadow over almost all the activities that captivate him thereafter. We then saw that at General Electric he honed the skills of a salesman that explained in many ways the enormous talent that he brought to the selling of public policy as America’s Salesman-in-Chief. Because part of what a president has to do, for good or for bad, is to secure the support and enthusiasm of the public, and boy was Reagan good at that. So we see the inklings of that in his GE years, but we also see a dark side. We see the General Electric vision, which is a vision of the American worker, and the need to woo him away from the protections of trade unionism and toward the suggestion that they will be taken care of by the corporation whose bottom line is at stake than by the union which, theoretically at least, is in place to ensure them better working conditions and better possibilities. And that was another element that we saw, that Reagan, who was once a union president…
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Paste: The only union president to become U.S. president.
Jarecki: Exactly. Better said than I could [laughs]. But you see that paradox, and along the way he learns to unlearn his love of unions. And that unlearning we then see echoed in the incredible antiunion and deregulatory positions taken later. And they continue through the governorship. In the governorship there are many positions, Reagan becomes calcified during the governorship into the role of angry white male. He is in many ways reflective of an angry population in this country at that time who feel that the quote unquote “advances” of the civil rights era are anathema to their vision of a sort of Readers Digest America. And out of that comes the culture wars, and Reagan becomes a serious and quite formidable warrior in those culture wars, deploying culture war issues in the game of California politics. And you can see him now really taking shape as a national figure. When we wanted to make the film constructed with a bit more of an intelligent design, to use a proper term, it turned out that the film was better served by creationism. If you leave Reagan to his own devices from birth to death, he tells a story that is in many ways the American story that unfolded during his century. And when we started to play fast and loose with that, to take our own controlling hand and say “We’re going to put the end before the beginning, and start in the middle, and rewind here and flashback there,” it became a muddled mess, and it undermined the inherent power of this guy’s vaulting rise from small roots to colossal outcomes. And as a result of that, it clipped in many ways the film’s ability to do self-referential things. So I leave it to the viewers to do the math for themselves. And that trusting in the organic power of the story was a decision made in the editing. To trust Reagan. And I have to tell you, at all times when I was up against making the film work, and what should the next scene be, where do we go next, what would be the most interesting thing to talk about now, he always saved the day. You could always turn to Reagan, who’s incredibly interesting to listen to and watch, who’s always doing something surprising and different, who’s very often very endearing even at his worst. Even when he’s admitting that he violated the law and undermined the Constitution in Iran-contra he’s very endearing; there’s a part of you that feels for him, as if he’s gotten into something that’s out of his depth.
Paste: I love reading presidential biographies and memoirs, and the more I read the more I keep coming back to two thoughts. One is that, even though we try to deify or demonize him, this overwhelming sense that this is just a guy, shaped by his own experiences. And the second is that, more often than not, whether I agree with him or not, he almost always doing what he thinks is right for the country.
Jarecki: Absolutely. You can’t predict how a film will be perceived, but I know what my intention is. Like most Americans, I live in the line of fire of a shooting match that is going on over Reagan’s legacy. It’s between shrill and extremist voices who alternately conceive of him either as an icon of all that’s great and good or a representative of everything that’s gone wrong with this country. And obviously neither is the case. He is just a man. His son Ron did, I think, a wonderful job of expressing his intimacy with his father and giving you a real sense of the old man.
Paste: He’s the key to your whole film, I think.
Jarecki: I think so, too, and what Ron portrays is a person very much like we’d describe our own parent. Someone for whom we have a lot of admiration, and also have lived with long enough to understand those imperfections that may be there. And because I live in that shouting match, and the deafening din of propaganda about Reagan so dominates the American political discourse, my only contribution of value that I can see is to bring the real Reagan to light. Because those who have created a marble statue out of Reagan become very uncomfortable when faced with the real Reagan. And they should be. Because the real Reagan gives the lie to a great deal of what they have to date pretended that Reagan represents. There’s almost no aspect of Reagan, except maybe his shoe size, that they haven’t created a myth for. And so to bring the real Reagan to light is a de facto attack on that. All I’m trying to do is bring together the people who knew him best, and the footage that expresses him best, and combine it together into what is hopefully a window into the person. But of course personhood, with all its flesh and blood and inner realities, is inconvenient for those who wish to build marble statues.
Paste: As soon as you become a powerful symbol, you become eligible for appropriation. And everyone wants to appropriate you. I mean ask Jesus – how many different Jesuses are there out ther that serve other people’s means instrumentally?
Jarecki: Exactly. What would Jesus buy? You know, the Germans have a great verb for this, that they use like we use the verb “to eat,” and it’s “to instrumentalize.” And I think that’s what’s happened to Reagan. and now once again, just like General Electric once used Reagan to go out there and wave certain culture war values issues around so that workers would feel warm and fuzzy while they got hurt around the back of the house, here today we see it again. Elites are once again invoking Reagan, dropping their G’s and saying things in a folksy sort of way that’s meant to capture the hearts of people. And it’s all fraud; it’s all stagecraft. And people are falling for a great deal of elite behavior in this country packaged as if it’s proletariat behavior. And I think the real Reagan, that I hope to bring to bear, is there to undermine that.
Paste: They’re all doing that, on both sides of the aisle.
Jarecki: Bush was a classic in this, when he would call everybody “folks.” It got to the point where I thought he was going to start referring to Al Qaeda as “folks,” “these folks who bombed us on 9/11.” The word stops having any meaning if you’re not using it from your heart. Remember when John Kerry was running for president? There was this great joke that they went into McDonald’s and his wife ordered the pheasant, that they were a little out of touch with everyday people. Well, Kerry decides he’s not going to be perceived as a rich guy, notwithstanding reality. So he goes out and buys a Carharrt jacket. And he’s out crossing the country in this thing, and I want to say to him, “Get some mud on it. Or at least take the damn label off of it.” You know? And this fake folksiness is a real poison, a real toxin in our time. And it finds its most haunting and effective expression in the trillion dollar industry that has emerged in the misappropriation of Ronald Reagan for contemporary political agendas that are privately held by an elite few. That’s what has to stop. Reagan himself, for much of his life, was devoted against the elites. His antagonism to the Soviet Union is antagonism against oppression by the elites of the many. And I think that, properly seen, he would see the elites’ oppression in this system as it is happening through information and other forms of oppression by government and by the private sector, and I think he would want to see that cleaned up as much as anyone else. And I think his legacy being brought to bear against that is consistent with the best of him.