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Television review: 'Nancy Reagan' and 'Reagan'

Family and friends remember the 40th president and his wife in two documentaries.

February 05, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old Sunday, an observation that is slightly ridiculous — he won't be, of course, because he died in 2004. And yet, it's significant enough to have launched his son Ron's new book, "My Father at 100," and two new documentaries that examine the legend of both the president and his first lady.

"Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," which airs Sunday night on KOCE, is, not surprisingly, the slighter of the two. Built around an interview of the former first lady conducted by Judy Woodruff, it is short — an hour — and to the point: Ronald Reagan would not have been who he was without his wife. Abandoned as a child by both her father and, for a time, her mother, Nancy craved stability and when she found it in fellow actor and then-SAG president Ronald Reagan, she proceeded to devote her talents and energy to him.

Social, lovely and not interested in making a name for herself, Nancy tirelessly cultivated the rich and influential Republicans who helped her husband become governor of California and later president of the United States. While she was in the White House, her public persona may have been one of fin de siècle glamour, but privately she was her husband's single biggest influence.

Unfortunately, this is presented as revelatory, which is strange. That Nancy Reagan was a politically savvy woman who would do anything to help her husband is common knowledge. As is the pair's extraordinary love, which lasted half a century, enduring eight years in the White House, an assassination attempt, more than a few scandals and the president's descent into Alzheimer's.

Nancy's description of the day of the shooting, and the footage of Reagan's funeral, are the documentary's most moving moments, and there is certainly value in being reminded of this still very vital woman's steadfast reading of her duties as a political spouse. But "Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" undermines its own premise by painting a relentlessly rosy picture of the first lady; no presidential administration is filled with only high points. If Nancy Reagan was so influential during her husband's presidency, she deserves not just the same sort of tribute but the same sort of scrutiny the president receives.

For that, viewers should turn to HBO's "Reagan," which airs Monday. Jumping off the current state of hyper mythology surrounding the 40th president, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki attempts to detangle fact from fiction. Although drawing upon many voices, including those of members of the Reagan administration, journalists and biographers, it is the president's son Ron who provides some of the greatest insights. Whether musing about his father's terrible near-sightedness, heroics as a lifeguard or grim hours during the arms for hostages deal, Ron offers a personal context for the entire story. The son appears to have neither an ax nor agenda — he simply would like to understand who his father really was.

Jarecki's mission is a bit more complicated. With no great revelation or recently unearthed moment, the film treats Reagan as a brand in the making. It follows Reagan from his days as a left-leaning actor to an ardent anti-Communist conservative who honed his Great Communicator skills shilling for General Electric.

Still, "Reagan" offers another version of the president's legacy beyond the commonly held view of him as a stern but affable politician. The work acknowledges that Reagan strengthened the way the nation felt about itself but points out it came a cost — military budgets ballooned, deficits soared in a deregulated economy, and a new tax code created a deeper chasm between rich and poor — one that remains to this day.

Jarecki is not trying to tear down the image of Reagan so much as make it right-sized. As the film notes, the president had his many contradictions — while hailed by anti-immigrationists, he also supported amnesty; while trumpeting small government and lower taxes, he increased both; and, while serving as a champion for Alzheimer's research, he largely ignored the AIDS crisis as thousands died.

If we're going to toss around his name so freely, Jarecki argues, we should probably remember what, exactly, Reagan stood for.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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