PBS made a four-hour documentary about the life of Ronald Reagan. The documentary could be described as somewhat of a hatchet job. It does reluctantly admit that Reagan's defense buildup succeeded in its goal of hastening the fall of the Soviet Union, though it follows this admission with a left-wing talking head saying this enormous accomplishment was not worth its financial price, and then blaming the deficits of those years on Reagan, rather than on the spendthrift Democrat Congress of the time (where the blame really belongs). They also said that the most controversial speech of Reagan's presidency was the "Evil Empire" speech, implying that they disagree with this assessment of the Soviet Union. (How anyone, even an ardent communist, can deny that the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire is beyond me.)
They also imply that Reagan's Alzheimer's disease began during his White House years, which could charitably be called nonsense; and one gets the sense that the video clips from the time of Reagan talking have been taken out of context, as Reagan's quotes usually were. The worst things they claim that Reagan said are either unsourced statements, or assumed to be true because of hearsay evidence from Reagan's two liberal children or a Reagan administration defector. (Not very reliable, in my opinion.)
They did have interviews with Reagan's family, both liberal and conservative (including his wife Nancy), but one gets the sense that the conservative interview clips were likewise taken out of context. The filmmakers don't have (or perhaps don't show) the Reagan Derangement Syndrome that most liberals have, but their left-wing bias definitely shows through in this film. The film is excellent and well-done propaganda, though without much basis in truth.
Mikhail Gorbachev, dictator of Soviet Union, 1987
Most challenging to the stomach is the left's usual revisionism about Mikhail Gorbachev having a role in ending the Cold War, portraying him as the reforming savior of Russia and Eastern Europe, rather than as the self-serving communist dictator he really was. He is interviewed in this documentary, and portrayed much more respectfully than Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. (Lady Thatcher is also interviewed in this documentary, but like the interview clips of the other conservatives, one gets the sense her comments were taken out of context by the liberal filmmakers.)
The film felt more like a story about current events than a history, and in fairness, some of that is inevitable when talking about events so recent. I watched it to get the liberal version of the Reagan presidency, and conservatives looking for opposition study would be well-served by watching this - and in fairness, this film does have a lot of fascinating footage of Reagan. But I cannot recommend this documentary to those who only want what really happened. PBS does superb documentaries about older history, but their programs on recent history leave much to be desired.
Fortunately, PBS is not the only source of information about Ronald Reagan. I am happy to report that his autobiography "An American Life" is quite good, quite accurate, and quite readable. There's a vastly disproportionate emphasis on his presidency, but that's not bad; and that tends to be the norm with presidential memoirs. That's the part of their lives most people are interested in anyway, and certainly the most significant for their legacy and the broader history of the country.
Reagan left office when I was two, so I have no memory of his presidency; but I have now made up for that deficiency by reading this book. I don't always agree with him, but few things make him look better than comparing him to his immediate successor (Jimmy Carter), or comparing him to the current president. I think Reagan was one of the greatest presidents in American history, and I wish he was here now.
DVD at Amazon
Can be viewed online at PBS website
Jimmy Carter movie
Cold War miniseries
George H.W. Bush movie