Long before Donald Trump controversially said he was going to “make America great again,” former actor and United States President Ronald Reagan ran on a similar platform, remaining in office for two terms from 1980 to 1988. In fact, mere minutes into Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Valez’s creatively designed documentary The Reagan Show, the contentious president uses those exact same words to describe his political M.O. While the parallels between Trump and Reagan are undeniable (with the former’s similarly right leaning politics seeming almost quaint in comparison today), The Reagan Show seeks to take a deeper dive into one of history’s most documented world leaders by using nothing more than thousands of hours of archival footage, most of it captured by White House staffers.

Perhaps more than anyone who preceded him, Reagan was keenly aware of the power of television and the cultivation of an image. A B-movie star in his pre-political heyday, Reagan was almost always cast as a heroic, tough talking everyman. His experiences in Hollywood served him well, and he became a master of public relations. Part of his onslaught of charm was that he was seemingly open to being filmed doing almost anything, from going on vacation to the ceremonial pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey to setting up obviously staged interviews or sound bites. The cameras were usually rolling around Ronald Reagan, and that’s how he liked it. While many in the media and on the left bemoaned that he was the first person to ever win the presidency of the United States merely by looking good on television, it’s hard to argue that the approach wasn’t effective among his voter base.

The Reagan Show sticks to only using title cards and introductory names when needed for context, preferring to let a wealth of archival footage speak critically of the presidency. Working primarily from footage captured for the in-house produced “White House Television,” Valez (Manakamana) and Pettengill (Town Hall) have constructed a deft and well researched bit of compare and contrast filmmaking where all of Reagan’s public fronts are laid bare. A president who was seen to have spent more time on PR and ceremony than actually forwarding any sort of policy changed, he was – much like Trump – always seen as a leader who let his staff run the country instead of running it himself.

There seemingly wasn’t a photo op that Reagan didn’t take, much to the chagrin of his infinitely wiser (and here sometimes openly annoyed) wife Nancy, a woman who was seen by many as secretly running the country in conjunction with her husband rather than beside him. Reagan was all smiles and giggles when he was allowed to control the direction of a public appearance, but whenever something went wrong during his presidency and reporters tried to get a comment from him, all of a sudden the former actor would get camera shy. Whenever pressed to talk about escalating nuclear tensions with Russians or the controversial Iran-Contra dealings, suddenly Reagan would feign ignorance, repeatedly act like he didn’t hear the question, or deliver some evasive and smug form of “no comment.” He always looked good evading any real challenges to his authority, but The Reagan Show shows all the cracks in Reagan’s already craggy visage.

Starting with a brief overview of how Reagan was able to more or less control his own legacy, Pettengill and Valez then narrow their focus a bit to look more specifically at how the president was out-manoeuvred and out-charmed by former Russian leader and rival Mikhail Gorbachev. A pair of perfectly pitched political rivals, the dance between the two megalomaniacal leaders (one that many thought would assuredly lead to nuclear war in yet another Trump parallel) would captivate television viewers around the world. It makes sense that Pettengill and Valez would choose this formative period of the Reagan presidency to focus on since it was one of the most widely documented events of the latter 20th century, but doing so also means that viewers only get to see the former president waffling on a small handful of issues rather than the laundry list of critiques that dogged his time in office. The Reagan Show is engaging and eye opening – offering up a unique look into the nature of rhetoric, staging, spin, and propaganda filmmaking – but there’s still something missing on the whole.

There are plenty of humanizing moments to be found within The Reagan Show that are fascinating to behold, but none that would change any of the widely divisive opinions American hold on the man. Watching Ronald Reagan bashing in the head of a stress doll, constantly repeating the one Russian proverb he knows in every media appearance, or coaxing an obviously terrified Nancy into riding a horse are asides that might not necessarily inform The Reagan Show one way or the other, but they certainly serve to make the mighty Reagan look fallible. Pettengill and Valez have made a solid, unforced, primary sourced hypothesis that if American had paid attention to these foibles more closely, the country could have avoided a lot of damage and its current state of affairs today.

Is The Reagan Show essential viewing?

It might not dive as deeply as it probably should, but the tightly constructed 75 minutes of archival material on display here paints a fascinating and vital picture of a turning point in the history of world politics without being didactic or pedantic. It’s as effective and intelligent as it is entertaining.

The Reagan Show opens Friday, August 18, 2017 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check their website for more information. It’s also currently available on VOD.

The Reagan Show Trailer