Judge Erick Harper tells you to buy just one DVD for the Gipper.
We have every right to dream heroic dreams; after all, we are Americans.
With the recent passing of former President Ronald Reagan, there has been no shortage of nostalgia, historical retrospective, and commentary about his place in history and the hearts and minds of the American people. It is a source of amazement to his supporters and consternation to his detractors that this man, out of the public eye for fully ten years before he died, endures as one of the most popular Presidents of the 20th Century.
Given this ongoing popularity, is should come as no surprise that a flood of DVDs is about to hit the "special interest" section of electronics stores everywhere, poised to cash in on the memories fond and foul that people have of this sometimes popular, sometimes polarizing figure. However, before the announcement that the Gipper had passed, MPI produced this collection of speeches and sound bites from the Reagan presidency. Actually, the real work had been done in 1999 by an outfit called Hail to the Chief Productions, and MPI merely prepared the material for DVD release.
Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator is a collection of Reagan's spoken words and public appearances spanning almost fifty years of public life. It is divided into four chapters, varying from 90 to 120 minutes in length. Each covers a major theme of Reagan's legacy: The Reagan Presidency, The Military and the Soviet Union, Reagan on Government and the American Dream, The Man. The segments are stitched together from hundreds of hours of press conferences, addresses to Congress, and speeches in a variety of venues, from Oval Office addresses to political convention speeches. There is no commentary given; Reagan is allowed here to speak for himself, with only the occasional subtitle provided to give some historical background. His soaring rhetoric, his amazing speaking ability, and his power to connect with people across the country are all preserved here.
Most of the appearances and speeches, as one might expect, paint Reagan in the glowing light that we grew accustomed to during his funeral week. There are a few bits that show him a little less favorably, such as his inadequate, rudderless sidestepping regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, without a doubt the darkest days and deepest blot on his presidency. For the most part, however, this collection is unabashedly geared toward Reagan fans.
There is a fair amount of material repeated from program to program. As moving as I find Reagan's challenge, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," I really don't need to hear it three or four times in the same DVD collection. The same goes for his countless reminiscences about playing George Gipp in Knute Rockne: All American, or even his address at Pointe du Hoc in 1984. They are great moments and fascinating artifacts, but repeating them several times in the same DVD collection is just redundant.
The greater problem from my perspective, as both a Reagan fan and a student of history, is the way these speeches and presentations are presented piecemeal, in what amounts to a Reagan Administration clipshow. Too much time is taken up by witty remarks at press conferences or luncheons, while not enough attention is paid to major policy addresses. Even when important speeches do get the focus, they are often reduced to small soundbites that are too short for anyone to really analyze in any depth, whether pro or con. The four programs provided here give a great sense of Reagan's warm and genial speaking style, but his political beliefs are covered in a piecemeal, scattershot fashion that will be frustrating to Reagan fans and foes alike.
Some of this is mitigated by the two hours of special features included on Disc Two, which include some longer clips. Here too, however, depth is sacrificed for a broad overview. His 1964 speech "A Time for Choosing," delivered on national television in support of Barry Goldwater, is considered a major landmark in the evolution of Reagan's career and politics; we receive a scant few minutes of this speech, skipping over even the best soundbites, let alone a coherent picture of the message he was presenting. Inaugural addresses, State of the Union messages, and convention speeches all get similarly shoddy treatment. Ceremonial and special occasion speeches fare a bit better; we get, for instance, Reagan's entire address on the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, and his addresses in Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. These are particularly great and memorable speeches to be sure, hailed by people of all political stripes, but they do little to help us understand the forces, opinions, and positions that defined the Reagan presidency for good or ill. In general, the speeches of the greatest historical importance are precisely the ones that get the shortest shrift in this collection.
Picture quality and audio quality across the collection vary widely, due to the wide range of source materials, ranging from newsreels of the 1940s to television footage from the 1960s through the 1990s. Some of it looks and sounds like it was shot yesterday; some of it looks and sounds like it was shot yesterday, and then left in a rainstorm overnight.
The biggest problem with this disc is that it is unfortunately accurate in its title. We get a sense of Reagan as the Great Communicator, but a much less clear idea of what it was he tried to communicate. This collection, presented as it is without outside commentary, could have been an important historical resource for Reagan lovers and haters alike. There is a great volume of material here, but too much of it is too cut, chopped, and spliced to be of much real value.
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