The response to “The Reagans,” a four-part documentary beginning Sunday on Showtime, will most likely reflect the stark cultural divide underscored by the recent presidential election . Half of America will already know and agree with the case it makes against Ronald Reagan, while the other half will never be persuaded.
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, the series provides the basic timeline of the Reagan presidency and the lives of him and his wife and White House counterpart, Nancy. A small roster of journalists, biographers and academics (for a documentary of this length) provides analysis while a gallery of Reagan-era luminaries offers personal testimony: James Baker, George Shultz, Grover Norquist, Ed Rollins, Ken Khachigian, emerging from the mist of the 1980s.
“The Reagans” is a consistently revisionist enterprise, resting on the premise that Ronald Reagan has been treated far too well by history — that he’s seen today as an exemplary president. That assessment isn’t as widely shared as the series indicates, but Tyrnauer is on firmer ground with his corollary argument that Reagan’s election was the pivot that brought American politics and public life to where they are today.
To that end, the series provides a steady succession of parallels between Reagan and Donald J. Trump, none labeled as such but all difficult to miss. Reagan campaign posters declare “Let’s make America great again”; Reagan poses with tall stacks of paper representing his bold initiatives; references are made to third-rate appointees dismantling the government and to regulations being rolled back; the Christian right ascends as a voting bloc and source of money; a new and deadly disease is ignored.
The charge it levels most strongly and at greatest length, especially in the earlier episodes, is that Reagan engaged in “dog whistle” racism as a campaigner, and that his economic policies as president were fundamentally shaped by racist stereotyping and fearmongering. (“Reagan’s reputation as a dog whistler has not had a sufficiently negative impact on his legacy,” a historian opines, making the revisionist impulse literal.) The series makes a familiar and convincing case, and an ugly taped snippet of Reagan discussing African delegates to the United Nations (with Richard Nixon, no less) suggests that his attitudes weren’t simply opportunistic.
The prominence of race in the series’s analysis — critical theory, in a mild form, manifesting in a mainstream television project — can seem both entirely appropriate and slightly out of balance. While the documentary also gives a detailed portrait of Reagan as a fantasist who believed in and embodied a mythical American ideal, it could do a more comprehensive job of showing how race, nostalgia and American exceptionalism were inextricably woven together in his politics.
The series’s focus also has a practical effect on its storytelling, which is that a lot of the things we remember the Reagan years for — Iran-contra, AIDS, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Gorbachev summit — get squished into the final episode. “Tear down this wall” isn’t heard until four minutes from the end.
And from the standpoint of entertainment and surprise, the material that grabs you may have less to do with the inherent biases of tax cuts and antidrug campaigns (or of Reagan’s legendary affability) and more to do with calibrating the extent to which Nancy Reagan and her astrologer Joan Quigley were in charge of our federal government for eight years. Tyrnauer’s best known documentaries — “Studio 54,” “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” “Valentino: The Last Emperor” — have covered less weighty topics, but with a similar focus on image-making and public style, and it’s those aspects of “The Reagans” that he handles most fluidly.
If you’re of a certain age and cultural disposition, there’s a particular sensation “The Reagans” might lead you to recall. The series doesn’t really go into it, but the sense of disbelief and panic among a large swath of Americans when Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 was very similar, in all but degree, to the reaction many felt on election night in 2016. There’s a lesson there, but even after 40 years it’s too early to tell exactly what it is.