22 February 2011

REAGAN (Dir. Eugene Jarecki, 2011, US/UK) - Idol Worship?

Documentary film maker Eugene Jarecki seems to have firmly settled on the objective of political deconstruction and in his previous works that included an expose of Kissinger (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) and a probing look at what exactly motivates America to go to war (Why We Fight), his refusal to polemicise has allowed for a degree of objectivity not normally found in such a genre. Unlike Michael Moore and even Nick Broomfield, personalising events subjectively shapes material into an uneasy alliance with personal political beliefs. Of course, every documentary selects and construct reality but sometimes especially when politics are involved giving the spectator more autonomy becomes crucial if one is to retain any sense of artistic integrity. Funded with a grant made available from Sundance and co produced with HBO documentaries, Reagan looks at the origins, development and eventual presidency of Ronald Reagan. Demythologising such an iconic symbol of American power is what is really at the heart of Jarecki’s approach and by the end of the documentary the benign media manufactured image of Reagan as the great American saviour is exposed as not only a fraud but one that continues to be perpetuated solely to advance the Republican party in American politics.

Jarecki appropriately and pertinently begins with the title ‘How Images Are Created’ - this becomes a motif that underpins the entire demythologising as the interviews with commentators attempts to separate the real man from the one staged managed by his slick publicity guru’s. Jarecki compellingly details Reagan’s ascendancy to public office from his time in Hollywood, focusing on his role as an FBI informant during the McCarthyite era and also his rapid transformation into a spokesperson for the corporate elite, namely General Electrics. The major part of the documentary focuses in on the now widely accepted economic ideology of 'Reaganomics' in which America under his presidency saw the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich, creating one of the greatest economic disparities between rich and poor, a savage hegemonic reality which continues to be sustained today. Perhaps the most critical section of the documentary is Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. His vitriolic anti communist stance which he inoculated back in the fifties is shown to be the ideological motivation for his impeachable decision to defy congress and support the despicable Contras in Nicaragua. Not only does this section delve into the questionable notion of war by proxy but unveils Reagan’s bellicose and almost ferverent mission to bring about the end of communism. This section ends with Reagan apologising sheepishly to the American people and coming clean about trading arms for hostages with Iran.

Whilst Jarecki is altogether more successful in the process of demythologising, the final sequences are a little dubious as they offer a compromise that present Reagan as somewhat sympathetic and even tragic. Nevertheless, Jarecki does pull back somewhat from taking up an overtly sympathetic position by using Jimmy Carter’s presidential address to point to moral and cultural crisis still facing American society today - it is the idea that the freedom sold to the American people is one wrapped up in consumerism not morality, equality or liberty. In many ways, it is a chilling ideological denouement that favours the misunderstood liberalism of Carter for the superficial, polarising conservatism of the Reagnite era. Let’s finish with a quote from Noam Chomsky - ‘If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.’ Chomsky's quote raises an important question - is it even justifiable that someone should be even attempting to offer a balanced account of Reagan given the evidence he defied congress and ran covert military operations and backed brutal opposition groups in South America. Like Bush and Blair, what this amounts to are a series of war crimes which have endlessly been perpetuated by successive administrations to protect American hegemony. Documentaries including Reagan and Inside Job sustain the argument that film has really struggled to deal with the political issues of our time. I think my major problem with such documentaries that offer some kind of revisionist approach to popular historical figures is the lack of and at times total denial of a voice to the victims of power.

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