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Review: ‘The Reagan Show’ captures the moment when style overtook substance

Still of Ronald Reagan in the documentary movie, The Reagan Show. Credit: Gravitas Ventures
Ronald Reagan in the documentary “The Reagan Show.”
(Gravitas Ventures)

Before Ronald Reagan, presidents looked at television, rolled their eyes and dealt with it. With the movie cowboy from California, though, the love and respect was mutual. Documentarians Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill give us a semi-cheeky tour of this pivot point in performance-driven leadership with “The Reagan Show,” an archival assemblage culled from the years of the 40th president’s eight-year administration.

The twin narratives are Reagan’s dealings with the Soviets — when “Evil Empire” talk and doomsday chatter segued to the Cold War’s end — and his relationship to the news media. The latter often screamed unanswered questions to a smiling, waving actor who recognized the power of picture-based charisma over easily ignored substance.

The Reagan White House’s embrace of near-constant video documentation was unprecedented: looking presidential was paramount when attention to detail wasn’t. It also makes for a funny twist when equally fame-savvy Mikhail Gorbachev comes on the scene, winning over American allies and challenging the Great Communicator to costar in a geopolitical buddy movie. (There’s more than a little anger in the raw footage of Reagan, after finishing a dry-run of a peaceful New Year’s address to the Soviet people, adding to the camera, “Take that, Mr. Gorbachev.”)

As a brisk, sobering reminder of — if you’re inclined to think this way — where it all went wrong with image over meaningful policy in politics, “The Reagan Show” may feel like the doc of the moment. It’s like a time capsule prologue to today’s world, no more prescient than when a 1988 Reagan lets on to David Brinkley with exit-interview folksiness that he often wondered “how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.”

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‘The Reagan Show’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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