With the 2020 general election in the rearview, both political parties will look at themselves in the rear-view. As the GOP looks toward the future, a Trump-led or Trump-less party will need to return to its roots. Modern conservative ideology stems from Goldwater and his 1964, but Ronald Reagan perfected the ideas and appealed across party lines. Yet Reagan’s messages and precedents have echoed through history as extremely controversial. Director Matt Tyrnauer‘s docuseries, The Reagans, examines how the famed president and his wife, Nancy, rose to power.
The rise of Ronald Reagan meant changing times for America. The former actor turned politician engaged in mythmaking from an early age. After serving as the President of the Screen Actors Guild, he began to build credibility in politics. Throughout the 1960s, his star continued to rise with the help of his wife. The two paved a path to the White House in 1980 and quickly became an icon for the conservative movement. While he was beloved by the right, his policies left many exposed. As the AIDS epidemic killed hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ men and the class divide soared, Reagan has become a villain to the other side of the aisle.
Combining decades of personal photos and archival footage, The Reagans could certainly have built a ten-episode season. Yet Tyrnauer exercises restraint, creating a four-episode season full of commentary and tension. Pulling from testimonials from Reagan’s own staff, his son Ronald Reagan Jr., and historians, the full image of Reagan’s influence can be felt. The talking heads reveal some internal fighting that occurred within Reagan’s staff. Some even show regret that their roles in the policymaking, painting their own myth in the process. The historians tapped are often critical of the President. Many even accuse him of actively making choices that harmed America in the long-run. Their context helps to frame conservative ideals that continue to find support in 2020.
For those who missed the Reagan years, many of the controversies feel surprising. A few are outright laughable but reveal cracks in how the Reagans saw those below them. Many of the issues and troubling discourses feel like they’ve been supercharged by the Trump era of Republican politics. The use of conservative dog whistles also looms large over the Reagan presidency. Black historians discuss how dog whistles have long found a home within the conservative movement. Combining this context with some scary audio, Reagan rarely comes out looking like a clean politician.
At the same time, Tyrnauer lays the bricks in the road that made Reagan so relatable. Much of this falls on his media strategy, which would transform the presidential relationship to cameras for decades. Many of Reagan’s strategies have been duplicated by subsequent presidents. It’s fair to attribute Reagan’s administration with credit for understanding how powerful the medium could be in spreading their message. Despite the credit given to TV, Tyrnauer rarely looks ahead for how the medium would help other Presidents. Instead, he lets the audience do the work on their own, to varying success.
The Reagans succeeds in bringing Nancy’s legacy into the public consciousness. Her role in the presidency has long been understood, but Tyrnauer pulls no punches. He paints her naked ambition on the screen with a judgemental brush. The evidence he supplies is difficult to argue against, yet those who loved Nancy will surely come to her defense.
Tyrnauer wisely stays away from many of the conspiracies that plague the administration, including the speculation of Nancy’s affairs or actively confirming that Reagan suffered from Dimensia while in office. Instead, Tyrnauer highlights the confirmable actions and decisions taken by the administration. For those who love Presidential history or Reagan, the series will fulfill an itch. However, it never rises to become a definitive document on the man or his time leading America.