Full disclosure: Appellate Judge Erick Harper voted for Ronald Reagan. Granted, it was a school mock election, and he was only in the second grade at the time, but still.
"I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there's purpose and worth to each and every life."—Ronald Reagan
"History will record his worth as a leader. We here have long since measured his worth as a man—honest, compassionate, graceful, brave. He was the most plainly decent man you could ever hope to meet."—Ronald Prescott Reagan, at his father's funeral, June 11, 2004.
Even in death, Ronald Reagan has his share of supporters and detractors. However, whether one admires him (as I do) or despises him, it remains indisputable that the Gipper was the pivotal figure of the 1980s and one of the individuals who made the greatest impact in the course of world affairs in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Politics aside, his death last year evoked many feelings for me and for many of my "totally '80s" generation. From the time he was elected during my time in the second grade until he left office during my sophomore year of high school, Ronald Reagan was a ubiquitous presence. He was as much a symbol of my formative years as Michael J. Fox, Molly Ringwald, Kirby Puckett, Luke Skywalker, Genesis's Invisible Touch album, or Mr. Rogers.
The funeral service was, for me, as much about nostalgia for a time as for a man. They are all here, the cast of characters from the 1980s and early 1990s: Mikhail Gorbachev, the commie-turned-reformer who found out the hard way that freedom can't be administered in controlled doses; Britain's iron lady, Margaret Thatcher, now silenced by age and ill health; Prince Charles, the luster of his '80s fairy-tale life now irrevocably dulled; George H.W. Bush, who managed to reinvent himself as a leading man even after eight years of playing a wimpy second banana to the Great Communicator. Even Dan Quayle's presence was a welcome treat; after all, in this production he played essentially the Anthony Michael Hall role for years, and seeing him again brought a warm smile of recognition. In the midst of all this nostalgia, the sudden appearance of George W. Bush was jarring and felt out of place, like Freddie Prinze, Jr. showing up to a reunion of the cast of The Breakfast Club. Granted, W's eulogy was a rare and surprising moment of eloquence for the 43rd President, but it still felt as though he had wandered into the wrong decade uninvited.
The Reagan Presidential Library has assembled this definitive DVD edition of the funeral proceedings for the late President, though the actual DVD release is under the auspices of Fox Home Entertainment. Included are over six hours of the events of the nation's farewell to President Reagan, plus some extended bonus features. The funeral program is assembled from the miles and miles of video shot live for broadcast during the event. Every step of Reagan's final journey is documented in detail, from sea to shining sea and back again. The benefit of watching the proceedings on this DVD, as opposed to live, are many; for one, the Reagan Library people were not shy in the editing department; where the actual news broadcasts featured endless shots of long lines of vehicles proceeding from point A to point B and so forth, the version on these discs keeps things moving at a pretty fast clip. They even saw fit to edit out or shorten some of the interminable playings of "Hail to the Chief," a song that even Nancy must have grown to hate after hearing it so many times in a single day. Conspicuously absent is any sort of narration or commentary. I had assumed this would be a refreshing change of pace, letting the events and participants speak for themselves, and I was mostly right, but once in a while I could have used a little play-by-play from Brit Hume to help keep straight everything that was going on.
The one portion of the program that will be new to most viewers is the private family memorial service held at the Reagan Library shortly after the President's death and before all the pageantry in Washington kicked into high gear. It is the closest thing to a quiet, family moment from the funeral that you will find in this collection. (Personally, I would have paid good money to see Lady Thatcher argue her way onto Air Force One for the return to California and the sunset service, but that would hardly have fit the decorum such an occasion demands.) The family memorial service is short (to match Patti Davis's skirt, no doubt) and remarkable mostly for the chance to try and read some of the dynamics of the Reagan family.
Video and audio quality are about on par with the original broadcast; if anything has been cleaned up or enhanced for this DVD set, it was done very subtly. The picture is bright and clean, and colors are wonderfully vivid and faithful. However, given the nature of the source material, it is far from the norm for DVD. If you sit back and don't look too closely it will look great, but upon closer inspection there is all sorts of video noise, especially around hard edges or areas of sharp contrast. The audio comes in a Dolby Stereo mix that is relatively clean and free from distortion, but still subject to the vagaries of recording a live event.
There are a number of special features included on Disc Two. "The Reagan Years" is a presidential doc produced not long after Reagan left office, and I've seen it several times in other venues and formats. It's a nice touch, and it's always interesting to hear Reagan commenting on his life and career in his own words, but it's nothing new. The exclusive tribute "The Final Journey" plays like a 19-minute highlight reel/greatest hits summary of the many days of funeral activities. It includes spoken voiceover tributes by many of Reagan's friends and admirers like Lady Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Selleck, and Merv Griffin, as well as a few regular people from various places around the country. Also included are a few poignant flashbacks to the Reagan Administration to accent the proceedings. The short film "An American Journey" is a presentation of the Reagan Library, a seven-minute trip through his life and accomplishments, narrated by the former President himself. Interestingly enough, the various short films do not ignore some of the more uncomfortable aspects of Reagan's presidency, such as the Iran-Contra affair. Rounding out the special features is a collection of photo montages. One deals with the "behind the scenes" aspects of the funeral, and includes private moments aboard Air Force One on the way from California to Washington and back again. A similar candid gallery recounts happier times with candidate Ronald Reagan during his three attempts at the White House (1976, 1980, and 1984). Finally, an interesting gallery includes private family photos from the Reagan family, including home movies of Ronnie teaching Ron Jr. and Patti how to swim, and a studio publicity photo of an amazingly dishy Nancy Davis during her starlet days. All told, the special features bring the running time of this two disc set to right around the eight hour mark.
While all of this is presented with a decidedly hagiographic gloss, there is real history to be found here. This collection documents very thoroughly the pomp and protocol of a state funeral, a very rare occasion in this country. It presents an image of an important historical figure as his friends and family saw him, as the nation largely saw him, and as he saw himself, and it is valuable in that regard. There is, of course, no pretense of presenting a critically balanced review of the man; that is best left to other venues. This is a celebration of the life and passing of a historically significant man; it is naturally pro-Reagan, and makes no bones about it. Whether or not this disc is for you will depend largely on your response to that.
In closing, I will admit that the proceedings contained herein brought me close to tears several times. Perhaps it was the nostalgia for a piece of my childhood and a better time for the country and the world lost forever. Certainly I felt something for Ronald Reagan's family, who in truth lost the man long ago, and now were forced to go through their very personal time of mourning in the full view of millions of their fellow Americans. Most of all, I mourned the loss of a man of strong character and undying love for his country. President Reagan was a man who had the courage of his convictions and followed where his ideals led him, always with firmness but always with humility, gentleness, and grace, never with hatred, hostility, or mean-spiritedness. Agree with him or disagree with him, celebrate his politics or despise them, but that's a life we could all use a lesson from.
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