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Gipper at the Flicks

books and culture

Gipper at the Flicks

Mark Weinberg’s light reflection on Ronald Reagan’s movie-viewing habits March 15, 2018
Arts and Culture

Movie Nights with the Reagans, by Mark Weinberg (Simon & Schuster, 289 pp., $28)    

Hollywood catalyzed Ronald Reagan’s rise and nearly led to his demise. A star of such films as King’s Row; Knute Rockne, All American; and, yes, Bedtime for Bonzo, Reagan almost lost his life from the same force that propelled him in politics when a celebrity-obsessed nut shot him to impress Jodie Foster. We know much about Reagan the movie star and Reagan the president but little about Reagan the moviegoer. What did the Great Communicator watch in his downtime? Mark Weinberg’s Movie Nights with the Reagans chronicles the films screened, mostly at Camp David, by the First Couple for friends and aides. It reads not unlike descriptions of its lead subject’s presidency from thumbs-down critics: easy and breezy but shallow, if ultimately enjoyable.

An entertaining read, Movie Nights with the Reagans comes from the pen of a man who did not have to watch the movie about the Reagan presidency because he lived it. Weinberg, a press aide who remained in Reagan’s employ after his White House years, generally accompanied the president and his wife on their periodic weekend trips to Camp David, where they relaxed by watching movies. The Reagans cherished the films of their own Hollywood era, so the new movies that they most enjoyed generally evoked a throwback feel, whether in the wholesomeness of the storylines or through an homage to Tinseltown’s Golden Age. Like millions of Americans, they liked E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and other since-confirmed classics of the 1980s.

Some of the movie choices made a deeper impact. WarGames, starring Matthew Broderick, actually prompted Reagan to inquire about the feasibility of haywire computers initiating a first nuclear strike. Back to the Future invited consideration of playing one last role. When Reagan left office, and the film’s producers sought to cast an actor to portray a nineteenth-century mayor in a sequel, they reached out to the former president. “In the end, he declined,” Weinberg notes. “Ronald Reagan loved the past. But he never needed to live in it.” Reagan enjoyed the first film, though. The marquee on the Hill Valley movie theater advertising Cattle Queen of Montana, starring Barbara Stanwyck and a certain future president, amused him, and viewers saw parallels between the happy times of the movie’s two eras.

Though others tried to read politics into why Reagan screened certain films, Weinberg maintains that he did so purely for entertainment. Put off by the marijuana-smoking of Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5, the Reagans nevertheless watched Superman II, starring Christopher Reeve, an outspoken critic; Reds, which depicts Communists (some of them, at least) in a more idealistic, heroic light than those shown in, say, Rocky IV, Red Dawn, and other presidential picks; and On Golden Pond, which featured several actors firmly on the other side of the political aisle (including a pair of Fondas). “An aging couple so devoted to each other that there often seemed to be little room for anyone else,” Weinberg observes. “A rebellious daughter with a notoriously difficult relationship with her father. This was the essence of the Academy Award-winning On Golden Pond. . . . But at the time, some people were saying the same about the Reagan family.”

Were they watching Jane Fonda and Henry Fonda play Patty Davis and Ronald Reagan? Reagan regarded Fonda as a traitor and expressed alarm when his own daughter struck up a friendship with the activist-actress. And Katherine Hepburn’s snub of the president’s wife seemed more personal. “Hepburn had decided to cut off ties once she learned Nancy was a Republican,” Weinberg writes. But the Reagans enjoyed good cinema and did not let politics interfere with it.

In 1984, during a respite in his reelection campaign, Reagan took in the smash-hit Ghostbusters. Weinberg points out that the movie’s scariest monster seemed to come from Gipper Studios central casting. “This monster, however, is not supernatural,” Weinberg explains. “He’s about as monotonously down-to-earth as one can get. He’s a government bureaucrat, Walter Peck of the Environmental Protection Agency, played straight by William Atherton.” Though conservatives point to this theme of entrepreneurs fighting against bureaucracy in Ghostbusters, Reagan didn’t connect the film with his politics. “He didn’t screen movies based on their ideology. That’s not what our movie nights were about,” Weinberg writes. “They were the opposite: an escape from politics.”

Perhaps this helps explain why Americans loved Ronald Reagan—because he was so much like them. Movies, Reagan’s gateway into politics, also served as his getaway from politics. This weekend, many Americans taking in Game Night, A Wrinkle in Time, and even Black Panther are going to the movies for the same reason.

Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

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