Trading on his celebrity to curry favor with voters, Ronald Reagan transitioned from Hollywood actor to politician, ultimately attaining the highest office in the land. Composed entirely of 1980s news footage and behind-the-scenes videos produced by his own administration, this insightful, entertaining, and strangely prescient film details how Reagan used public relations savvy to become the first made-for-TV president—one uniquely suited to face off against a charismatic Russian rival.
We spoke with THE REAGAN SHOW co-directors Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez - read more below, and catch a screening on Saturday, June 24 at 1:30 PM and/or Sunday, June 25 at 4:15 PM!
NFF: How did you even begin the archival footage process? Did you have an idea of what you wanted and went after it, or did you have to wade through hours of material and pull out bits and pieces?
Sierra & Pacho: Our initial interest in Reagan was focused on looking at him through his performed images, and how those changed through time. That led us to the White House Television Archive (WHTV), housed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library—which was a massive archive shot by the United States Naval Photographic unit, documenting his years in office. There was a PDF log of the materials, but the sorts of revealing moments that interested us were often hidden beneath quite boring descriptions, so we spent months and months - which become years! - actually sifting through the footage.
In general, it was an inside-out approach. Through careful attention to the footage in the archive, we "learned" to what the archive was telling us about the man, as well as his priorities and policies. Once we had that as a rough shape, and had settled on the US-USSR nuclear negotiations, we turned to reckon with the large archival record of the national news media, to see how they were covering and interpreting his presidency. The film is a dialogue between these sets of archives.
NFF: Do you think being a "tv president" helped secure Reagan's legacy?
Sierra & Pacho: For sure. Well-crafted images and narratives have the power to bypass our internal critical defenses, and can worm their ways in, influencing and manipulating our recollections of history. This is one of the things we were really interested in exploring: how did Reagan’s legacy get cemented?
NFF: Why did you decide to present the material without any additional contemporary commentary?
Sierra & Pacho: Presenting original recordings, framed only by our montage, is the best way for audiences to track Reagan through the end of the Cold War—with all its confusion, fear, humor and, above all, irony. A present-day commentary would have provided a voice of "authority" that undercut this experiential journey. Instead, we hope that our immersive, self-reflective approach invites viewers to look closely at—and question—the use of narrative in contemporary politics by presenting them with a direct example of that strategy in action.
NFF: There seem to be obvious parallels with the Trump campaign - were you aware of the similarities either during the last election cycle, and/or while you were working on the film?
Sierra & Pacho: The parallels with Trump are striking, but the film is really illustrating a macro trend - the increasing focus on media spectacle in American politics. With Trump, there is a particular manifestation right now that makes the trend especially pointed or prevalent. But this trend is something that’s been developing for decades - it’s the transition from politics as a space of nuanced description of complicated realities to politics as a collection of simplified reassuring narratives. And the scariest thing is that it’s wrong to think Trump is the end of it. He’s just one more weigh station along the road.
NFF: Why are you excited to show the film in Nantucket, and/or what do you hope Nantucket audiences will take away?
Sierra & Pacho: We hope that the film helps to provide a new lens on both the Reagan presidency and a way to look at and understand the current political climate - both through the similarities and the manifold differences. And also, that they'll have a good time watching the film!