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At the Movies with Ronald Reagan

By: Michael Taube
September 26, 2018

o say the Reagans passionately loved movies would be an understatement. The celluloid industry was an important part of the president’s life, from his days as a Hollywood actor to his nights in the White House.

Ronald and Nancy organized movie viewings at Camp David on most weekends and invited staffers to join them. Mark Weinberg, a communications consultant who served as Reagan’s spokesman, advisor, and presidential speechwriter, was a regular fixture at these viewings. His engaging book, Movie Nights with the Reagans: A Memoir, examines some of the blockbuster films—several starring the president—featured at these events and the effect they had on the president’s actions in office. This celluloid world never replaced reality in the Reagan White House, but it did occasionally serve as a political and spiritual guide.

The author’s relationships with the Reagans puts him in the unique category of personal storyteller. Starting off as a “twenty-three-year-old White House press aide assigned to travel with the Reagans to Camp David for the weekends”—an intriguing, and unusual, task for any political staffer—Weinberg would become “one of the few members of the administration who saw them off guard and up close.” This bond of friendship continued long after Reagan’s presidential years had concluded.

At Camp David, Weinberg stayed in Sycamore, a small cabin close to the presidential residence of Aspen Lodge, and a literal “stone’s throw” from Laurel Lodge, where the movies were shown. Screenings began at 8pm, although most guests would start to gather around 7:40, knowing the president would open the doors five minutes later.

Once everyone settled in, the magic would begin.

Each of the Weinberg’s chapters focuses on a particular film (or films) juxtaposed with a Reaganesque trait, view, or political issue. Although the initial connection often appears shoehorned, there’s a method to Weinberg’s movie madness. Each film included in the book, regardless of genre, seemed to have had a profound, long-lasting effect on Reagan.

The 1980 comedy 9 to 5, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, is the book’s first entry. The American Film Institute “named the film one of the top movies of all time”; it’s “continually referred to as a Reagan-era symbol ‘for women seeking equal treatment in the workforce.’ Whether it should be or not.”

The movie focuses on three female secretaries coping with “lecherous sexual advances and other forms of discrimination from their male boss,” played by Dabney Coleman. It’s a scenario straight out of the #MeToo campaign playbook, although the tables are turned after Tomlin “accidentally poison[s]” the boss’s coffee. This enables the women to hold him hostage at his home, and miraculously change the work environment.

It was a “silly but fun plot” that everyone, including the Reagans, enjoyed. Yet “one scene left the president angry”: the women, in a moment of bonding against their awful boss, smoke marijuana. It would have been “truly funny” if the “three gals had played getting drunk,” Reagan remarked, “but no, they had to get stoned on pot.” Not only was the president irritated, but so was Nancy, who cited this scene “during the launch of her most visible and important initiative during her husband’s presidency: her antidrug campaign, which was dubbed in the press as ‘Just Say No.’”

The film became “something of a cause célèbre for women during the Reagan era.” While the left-wing National Organization for Women viewed the president as the enemy, Reagan relied upon women personally and politically and never viewed them as anything less than men. Nancy “was indisputably the most influential and relied-upon person in his life,” writes Weinberg, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “was every bit as influential on the fortieth president as any man was.” Several themes in 9 to 5 undoubtedly struck a chord.

Weinberg also discusses the 1981 Academy Award winner Chariots of Fire, which examines the intriguing parallel stories of two British sprinters at the 1924 Summer Olympics: Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson), a “devout Christian” who “earned victories not for his own glory but for God’s” and Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), who “was Jewish, and as such, experienced prejudice despite his admission to the elite ranks of students at Cambridge University.” Reagan, a true Anglophile, would often refer to this film “to conjure up images of freedom and the divine source from which he firmly believed it flowed.”

Three movies—Reds (1981), Red Dawn (1984), and Rocky IV (1985)—appear in one chapter as examples of anti-communism.        

Reagan liked Sylvester Stallone—who was “one of the most prominent Hollywood supporters” of his presidency—and the Rocky movies in general. The fourth installment—thoroughly despised by the Soviets—was greatly appreciated by American conservatives. The president believed the movie “offered some of the most realistic fight scenes he’d ever seen,” and quipped that “[i]t had a very happy ending. He beats the Russians.” Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met with Reagan for the first time at the Geneva Summit, right around the time of the movie’s premier. Things thankfully went more smoothly than Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago’s brutal battle inside the boxing ring.

Despite their political differences, the president was friends with Warren Beatty, producer and lead actor of Reds. Weinberg notes that though Reagan enjoyed Reds and appreciated “his friend’s hard work, he found nothing romantic about the Bolshevik Revolution the movie portrayed.” As for the anti-communist Red Dawn, Reagan watched it “at an interesting point in US-Soviet relations.... He aimed to show the Russians that the United States meant to win the Cold War.” Post-viewing, Reagan announced a meeting with Soviet foreign affairs minister Andrei Gromyko in an attempt to broker peace.

A few of Reagan’s own films held special meaning, too.

Knute Rockne, All American (1940) was Reagan’s defining role and the one he most wanted to play. “Rockne stressed character,” he once said. “He knew, instinctively, the relationship between the physical and moral.” Reagan used the real Gipper’s example to inspire Americans. Reagan watched Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) for the first time in its entirety at Camp David in 1984. Claiming it was “perhaps the most fun movie he ever made,” the president was “not embarrassed by it,” even if he did play second fiddle to an annoying chimpanzee. In Hellcats of the Navy (1957) Ron and Nancy shared the silver screen during their final bow to Hollywood. “[F]or Ronald and Nancy, the chance to finish their careers together was a special one,” Weinberg wrote, “a memory that Mrs. Reagan carried with her until the end.”       

Is Movie Nights with the Reagans a romanticized version of a president who used his Hollywood roots to build a political legacy in Washington? Weinberg, the ultimate political insider, could have easily included a few instances of artistic liberty—and we’d be none the wiser. But his overall depiction of the Reagans sounds exactly like the genuine article: the successful union of art, politics, and conservatism on the silver screen and in real life.