Looking through an unusual lens at Ronald Reagan

Movie Nights with the Reagans provides an intimate look at a presidency that continues to influence the political landscape

Gavin MacFadyenLovers of both movies and politics will want to check out a new book Movie Nights with the Reagans by Mark Weinberg.

Published by Simon and Schuster, it’s an intimate, heartfelt remembrance of what it was like to share regular weekend movie nights at Camp David in the 1980s with President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy.

Weinberg served on Reagan’s staff as a speechwriter, communications adviser and assistant press secretary. He was with the Reagans throughout their eight years in the White House (a feat in and of itself) and then asked to head their public relations team once they returned to Los Angeles.

Weinberg enjoyed a behind-the-scenes access to the Reagans that few could match and it’s precisely that fact that gives the book the feel of a love letter and admiring portrait from a self-admitted devotee.

As Weinberg tells it, the couple adored Camp David and it quickly became their habit to screen films for themselves and any assembled staff who cared to join them on weekends. The book reveals just how much movies remained an important and influential part of their lives long after they left Hollywood. During their time in office, they would screen more than 300 films.

The book uses a handful of films they chose for viewing as a device to pull together random moments from the Reagan presidency. Weinberg’s deep affection for both Ronald and Nancy Reagan comes through on every page. It’s no wonder that Mrs. Reagan – notoriously protective of both her husband and his legacy – granted Weinberg an interview for the book. It would be the last of her life and she fully approved of his effort to capture what to many under 40 is an increasingly distant era in American life.

The movies are used as mere jumping-off points to discuss aspects of Ronald Reagan – both the man at various stages of his life and the president during cherry-picked moments of his time in office. A viewing of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi is the impetus to discuss Reagan’s unrealized pet project: the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI would quickly become popularly referred to – often in derogatory terms – as “Star Wars.”

Similarly, The Untouchables is discussed in the context of how Reagan – in Weinberg’s opinion – never got credit for what the author suggests was a significant and relentless assault on organized crime during his presidency.

Top Gun is mentioned for its unabashed pro-military and pro-American stance and how that celebration of American strength had been notably absent prior to Reagan’s ascension to the presidency.

The book is certainly a look through rose-coloured glasses and Reagan critics will surely challenge it for what the author admits is a tendency towards hagiography where Ronald Reagan is concerned. But the book does offer insight that should be remembered when evaluating both Reagans’ time in the White House.

One of the main takeaways from the book is how much President Reagan was influenced and inspired by the movies. They were both entertainment and education. He saw them as containing universal truths and timeless lessons that could be applied to daily life. He would quote a line from Back to the Future in his 1986 state of the union address as an example of a bright American future: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Refreshing is Weinberg’s respectful and warm treatment of Nancy Reagan. For that reason alone the book stands out amongst the dozens of less flattering portrayals of the former first lady. He makes passing reference to her reputation as a fierce protector of her husband’s time and reputation. He’s just as quick to point out that he never felt that her influence emanated from anything other than a wife who was deeply in love with her husband.

Bottom line: If you loved Reagan as president, you will love this book. If you didn’t – or are too young to remember – then reading it might give you some insight into the thought process of a man whose influence on the American political landscape has only grown in the years since he left office.

Troy Media columnist Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer. Blending insight and wit, he brings a unique perspective to the issues of the day.


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