Q&A with Eugene Jarecki, director of the documentary "Reagan"

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary on Ronald Reagan, simply titled “Reagan,” debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, just in time for the anniversary of the deceased former president’s birthday. Reagan would have been 100 on Feb. 6.

Jarecki told The Hill that he found Reagan to be a man who opened up to few people but a politician whose career is still relevant today.

Q: Why did you decide to do a documentary about Ronald Reagan?

Doing a documentary on Ronald Reagan is like deciding to do a documentary about air or water. You can’t live in America today or be an American without noticing how crucial Ronald Reagan is in having a conversation about anything. Ronald Reagan is so much a part of the conversations we have as Americans about ourselves, our role in the world and our future.

Ronald Reagan’s legacy is deeply misunderstood because there are political actors in America who, for several reasons, have privately held agendas that they want to sell to the American public in the most appealing way possible. They often find the best way to do that is to package their product with the Reagan brand.

What we always learn is that Ronald Reagan never lives up to the sort of caricatures that are drawn of him today. As I made the film and as I got to know more and more about Ronald Reagan, I started to come to see a far richer, more textured and ultimately just far more complex man than any of those stereotypes allow for.

Q: How did you decide what and whom to include in the documentary?

There’s no question when I embarked on the project, I wanted to make contact with people who I knew had the most firsthand testimony of Reagan personally and professionally so that I could get behind the sort of shallow presentation of him that has sort of come to dominate in the mainstream media. And that means people in his Cabinet, his family, and then on the other side. I wanted to contact people who were critics of Ronald Reagan, who were not admirers.

What was fascinating was the overlap between those two groups, and I think that’s where the portrait of the real Ronald Reagan began to emerge.

Q: What kind of balance were you hoping to achieve? You included both highlights and lowlights of Reagan’s career.

Where we sought balance was out of the basic sensitivity that means a great deal to very different people in very different ways. He is loved by some people in this country; he is hated by some people in this country. He is loved around the world; he is hated around the world.

I think in my case, in the name of balance, I wanted to go about welcoming people into the discussion of Ronald Reagan so that discussion can help us address the problems of the world and go out solving them.

From the very start, I understood that there are people who share his persuasions and there are those that don’t — but that it’s an open dialogue and discussion.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Reagan in making this film?

Reagan is often portrayed as a kind of amiable dunce … and there’s no question that the story of American politics is a story in which, behind the scenes, there’s a great deal of power. But the big lesson of Reagan is: To think that he was some sort of simple figurehead and didn’t do the thinking and simply read a script in front of him woefully underestimates him. Ronald Reagan was an extremely intelligent person with a real V8 engine under his hood.

Q: I’m sure you’ve seen that [sons] Ron and Michael Reagan have exchanged tense words over the past couple of weeks, and both of them have new books on their father. They’re both in your film, too. What kind of relationship did you sense they have, and did they have with their father?

We spoke to several people about Reagan’s personal life, particularly the biographers who knew him and very close associates who knew him. 
Official biographer Edmund Morris shared a very tender reflection about the difference between Michael and Ron. Michael was an adopted son of Ronald Reagan. They are different, Ron and Michael, as people; they are different politically, and they have different ways of relating to Reagan as a man.

At the same time, when you talk to Edmund Morris, when he talks to Ron, he sees very much the old man. When you’re with Ron, you really get the feeling of the old man — his extraordinary gift of communications, grace — a mix of awe-shucks openness and deep intellect.

When you talk to Michael, who’s very intelligent and committed to his father’s legacy, Morris always found Michael more tortured — of wanting to connect with his father. Michael himself talked about feeling secondary until a certain age. He even had doubts about how loved he felt. 

You get a feeling from both men of what it must be like to live in the shadow of such an immense figure.

In many ways I think Reagan left America divided about who he was and what he meant, and you see that within his family. As they are unresolved, so are we.

Q: What was the most difficult part about making this film?

That Ronald Reagan is probably the most filmed human being in the history of the world and that everything he’s in, he’s so good and so lovable. 
Just choosing what to show, to share with the public the most reasoned portrait I could was a tremendously delicate enterprise.

Q: What do you hope viewers will take away from your film?

Right now we live in a country where statues are being built of Ronald Reagan, in many cases, by design. Men like Grover Norquist want that vision crystallized — buildings named after him. There’s been a movement to add Reagan’s face on Mount Rushmore.

This kind of crusade to Reaganize America is, I think, very dangerous and misleading. I think what the effort shows is the politicization of this issue. There are people who are trying to advance themselves by wrapping themselves in Reagan.

I hope that the film presents to people at minimum an invitation to consider more deeply who Reagan really might have been, so that we as a people who face challenges ahead can draw real lessons from the past rather than illusory lessons from the past.