Sunday night’s episode of The Reagans, Showtime’s absorbing docuseries, ends with the idle chatter of journalists surveying the landscape after Ronald Reagan’s resounding 1980 defeat of President Jimmy Carter.
“Who leads the social counterrevolution? Teddy Kennedy?” CBS anchor Walter Cronkite asks in the clip.
“How about Senator [Joe] Biden from Delaware for openers?” commentator Jeff Greenfield suggests in response. “Very impressive young guy, in his second term, revisionist Democrat.”
“Okay, all right,” Cronkite says in response, laughing. “All right.”
The clip is one of the most impressive archival finds that director Matt Tyrnauer unearthed for his four-part limited series, which concludes its run next month.
“In order to create a cinematic experience, I think getting the best of archival and material that’s never been seen before is a mission,” he told Vanity Fair in an interview. “The way I do that often is in the reading. Sometimes you’ll read that someone had a movie camera or something happened as a part of a commercial shoot, and what we then do is I’ll make note of that. Then I send the archivists looking for whoever had the movie camera and we try to find… Frequently they’re not around anymore. But we send their family and ask if the film exists. We adapt.”
Throughout The Reagans, Tyrnauer utilizes backstage footage and rare video of Reagan and his wife, Nancy. In one instance, he found a film called Nancy: First Lady of California, a documentary about the Reagans’ early days in the California governor’s office. The show aired just once.
“Nancy Reagan so hated it that she basically had it destroyed,” he said. “But we found the negative. There was one negative, and it was at UCLA in the Film and Television Archive. No one had seen this since it aired more than 50 years ago, and we had the negative transferred in blazing color. It’s exquisite. And that’s where all of the cinema verité footage of Nancy and Reagan himself comes from, and no one has seen that really. That’s kind of like the gold mine when I find stuff like that.”
Tyrnauer, who called himself an “aficionado of the Golden Age of TV news,” spent hours upon hours looking through news broadcasts as well—which is how he found the reference to now President-Elect Biden. “Cronkite bursts into laughter. That’s the best part,” he said of the clip. “Cronkite just looks at them like they’re insane.”
The Reagans makes explicit the ways in which outgoing President Donald Trump used the Reagan playbook to win over Republican allies and American voters. So perhaps it’s fitting that Biden is cited as a potential corrective to the Republican policies that were mainstreamed after the 1980 victory.
“The thing that’s so frustrating about this [is] that we had learned these lessons decades before,” Tyrnauer said. “But in what Gore Vidal called the United States of Amnesia, it was not surprising that everyone had forgotten them.”
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