President Ronald Reagan stands at the podium, but it's Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, standing to the side, who gets the laugh.
That press conference moment, seen above, at which Reagan trots out his favorite Russian proverb ("trust, but verify") and gets called out for repeating the same lines over and over again, stands out to filmmaker Sierra Pettengill for the way it exposes both Reagan's charm and the cracks in his presidential façade. And she would know if a Reagan moment is worth watching: she estimates that she and fellow filmmaker Pacho Velez, along with their team, watched a cumulative 1,000 hours of footage of President Reagan in order to make their new documentary The Reagan Show, which tells the story of his time in office through contemporary news reports and internal White House video documentation.
With his Hollywood background setting him at ease in front of cameras and a strong understanding of the power of the media, Reagan cultivated an unusual relationship with cameras. So, despite the gargantuan task of tackling the footage that resulted from that symbiosis, it was a natural place to start. By examining his influence on the media, Velez and Pettengill hoped to unpack how the Reagan narrative was created and propagated — and say something new about a President whose life and legacy has been thoroughly explored.
“Reagan has this outsized legacy is American culture. He’s nearly mythological at this point. We were interested in trying to see how that narrative came to be formed and how he was able to take hold of the American imagination in the way he did, both in real time and since then," says Pettengill.
But, though Reagan's persona is so well known and both filmmakers grew up with his presidency in the background, what they found in the footage (which was either available in the public domain or fell under fair use) taught them something new about his time in the White House and his ongoing effect on the American political landscape.
While Velez felt that the ultimate result of the project was "a pretty damning critique" of Reagan and his relationship with the media environment, the twist came in the knowledge that it would be necessary for him to identify in some way with their protagonist, to find in the footage a way to feel a connection to the man. He found a source of that connection in the realization that "what you see is what you get" with Ronald Reagan. Velez says he came to believe the notion (one also attested to by the President's inner circle) that the public Reagan and the private Reagan were pretty much the same.
Although that realization gave Velez some appreciation for Reagan's candor, it was also a fitting one considering one of the other messages he learned from spending so much time with the President: that public relations, as practiced expertly by Reagan and his team, is not about creating images but rather creating reality. Saying something publicly and often and well, if the media plays along, can make it true. "Through reporting on it, you're also creating it," he explains. "Reality is as much about power as it is about truth."
Pettengill adds that watching Reagan and his team develop his persona through the media was, she found, particularly fascinating amid the media landscape of the 2016 presidential election. (Though The Reagan Show has been in the works for years, the film was finished on Inauguration Day.) As the issue of "fake news" made headlines, the footage from the 1980s took on a new layer of meaning.
“It’s something that’s been in constant conversations the last year or so but we really felt it in this film – you’re watching the media prizing imagery over substance, and the roots of this post-truth idea where what you’re saying and the facts of that matter less than how they’re delivered," Pettengill says. "The craziest scene for me, really in watching any of this, was after Iran-Contra when Reagan makes that televised speech where he says, essentially, in my heart I know I didn’t do it, but the facts and the evidence tell me otherwise. That’s such a staggering thing to say. You’re admitting that the facts and the evidence don’t respond to your emotional truth, but that that doesn’t matter. That’s a very stark moment.”
The Reagan Show will be in theaters on Friday and is set to be broadcast on CNN in the fall of 2017.