Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hudson Institute ’11: Ronald Reagan—Rendezvous with Destiny

Regardless of politics, those of us who came of age as children of the 1980’s (so-called “Generation X’ers”) will forever measure presidents against the standard set by Ronald Reagan. So far, his successors have come up well short (woefully so in recent years). Yes, he was the “Great Communicator,” but his words were far from empty. The 40th American president’s life and legacy are explained in context for those who might have forgotten in Kevin Knoblock’s Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2nd Annual Hudson Institute Film Festival.

The basics of Reagan’s story are well established. Born to modest means, Reagan became a popular Warner Brothers’ contract star. Parlaying his fame into a successful political career, Reagan defeated Pat Brown, the profligate incumbent governor of California in one of the greatest upsets of the 1960’s. Yet, as biographer Lou Cannon notes in Rendezvous, Reagan’s political rivals kept underestimating him. That did not work out so well for Gerald Ford in the 1976 primary. It was even worse for Jimmy Carter in the 1980 general.

Rendezvous identifies three fundamental goals of the Reagan Revolution: promoting freedom abroad by rolling back Communist expansion, revitalizing an American economy mired in Carter-era stagflation, and restoring the American spirit. Anyone who lived through the 1980’s knows he succeeded on all three fronts. Rendezvous is clearly strongest when addressing the first point, but surprisingly disappointing when tackling the second (relying on the likes of former Treasury Secretary James Baker rather than real Supply-Siders). In fact, the film’s best material consists of behind-the-scenes accounts of the Gorbachev summits, conclusively documenting just how thoroughly Reagan out-maneuvered the final Soviet ruler.

Though produced by the activist Citizens United, many of Rendezvous’ talking heads praise Reagan for his savvy pragmatism as a negotiator. Historian Douglas Brinkley cites a particularly apt Reagan quote on what he learned from his stint as the president of the Screen Actors Guild: “the purpose of a negotiation is to get an agreement.”

Any film boasting commentary from legitimately heroic figures like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel is significant. Rendezvous also includes some strikingly expressive Reagan photos that have not been widely circulated. Unfortunately the host segments featuring Newt and Callista Gingrich lend the film a distinctly uncinematic vibe. (Indeed, just why we should care what she has to say is certainly debatable, while the film’s target audience is likely to be a bit down on the former Speaker after his ill-considered words on the politically courageous Rep. Paul Ryan.)

Frankly, Rendezvous is a far more insightful examination of the Reagan Administration than Eugene Jarecki’s polemical HBO documentary-opinion piece. Of course, this is a lot like saying it is more technically polished than the films of Ed Wood or more uplifting than Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. Essentially, the guts of Rendezvous are very good, but the connective tissue is pretty weak stuff. Though worth seeing, the best film at the 2011 Hudson Institute Film Fest by far is Bob Bowdon’s The Cartel, which has been covered here several times in the past. Both screen this Memorial Day Monday (5/30) at B.B. King’s venerable club on 42nd Street.