The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Spectator Desire and Narrative Closure: The Reagan 18-Minute Political Film
Susan Mackey-Kallis, Southern Communications Journal, Summer 1991

[This is an abridgement]
An image from a 1984 Reagan campaign ad

The 18-minute film that preceded Ronald Reagan's acceptance speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention affected the emotions of the viewers in ways that left Republicans and Democrats alike dazed and silent. NBC's Roger Mudd, speaking of the film's impact on viewers, said, "This film will not tax your mind, it will not challenge your intellect, but it will assault your emotions head on."....Even the Mondale/Ferraro Campaign headquarters responded to the film's poignancy. [Martin] Schram noted "tears in the eyes of some of these Mondale workers...tears...streaming down their cheeks as they watch what, after all, is just a television commercial from the camp of their enemy."....

....A large number of the film's images and references make sense...only if the viewer has a knowledge of the American political system and culture. The American/Western hero myth provides narrative coherence for the viewer at the level of cultural history. This hermeneutic structure, coupled with the formal structures of narrative, encourage the viewer to read the film as the story of the Reagan Presidency and the story of a Western/American hero. These stories, reinforced and complemented through ceremony and history, create an emotional experience that invites the audience's participation as celebrants, bestowing their blessing upon Ronald Reagan.

....Reagan's 1980 campaign rhetoric evoked two "intertwined" myths, the "hero of the West" and "the glory that was once America." Reagan, in part, was defeated in 1976 because he was seen as someone who "shoots from the hip;" he was elected in 1980...for the same reason....[Garry] Wills, speaking of Reagan, noted that no one has undergone a more thorough initiation into every aspect of the American legend....[N]o one has found so many conduits...for bringing the legend to us in the freshest way. He is the perfect carrier, the ancient messages travel through him without friction." Reagan is both Western hero and mythic American hero.

[W.R]. Fisher explains that to be an American hero, "one must not only display (the qualities of individualism, achievement, and success), one must also be visionary, mythic, a subject of folklore and legend....The American hero is the symbolic embodiment of this dream in a single person, most predominantly in certain presidents." [W.A]. Henry argued that part of Reagan's appeal and re-electability was because Reagan "appeared to have attained the goal of every national politician, to embody so thoroughly the myths and traits of the country's idealized image of itself that a vote for Ronald Reagan would be a vote for the real America."

The strength of the aesthetic identification we feel, not only for Reagan as Western hero and American hero, but the American people as the everyday heroes of this story, provides the driving force of the film....

As the film opens, the first image that appears on the screen is the date, January 21, 1981, in bold white letters against a blue background. The voice over this image is that of the Chief Justice. "Governor, are you prepared to take the Constitutional oath?" We hear Reagan reply, "I am."....The date January 21, 1981, is inscribed in the viewer's mind as important. The opening indicates a beginning, grounded in temporality, much like the "once upon a time" of stories....

As the theme music begins, we see the second image of the film -- a sunrise over a rural American setting. This is followed by a dissolve to another image of a farm house in early morning. We hear a rooster's faint crow. While viewing these images we hear, "Place your left hand on the Bible, raise your right hand, and repeat after me. I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear." The next image is of Reagan, his right hand raised, facing the Chief Justice....He says, "I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear." The image changes to horses running in a corral, silhouetted by the early morning sun, and then to a hard-hat construction worker on the job. As the worker signals "up" with his thumb, a piece of machinery is hoisted. His gaze follows the machinery upward. This is followed by an image of a flag being rased, and then a shotof a young girl looking upward (following the flag's progress?). Over these and other images of "morning in America" we hear the Chief Justice saying, "That I will faithfully exercise the office of President of the United States." The next shot is of Reagan repeating these words, and then in voice-over of other morning images he repeats the Chief Justice's words, "And will, to the best of my abilities, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God." The next image is of the Capital Building dome.

....This film, by presenting us with Ronald Reagan's participation in this ceremony, invokes the symbolic resonances of history, permanence, and celebration. The stratgic placement of this ceremony in the beginning of the film creates a historical framework -- a story context -- in which Reagan's role as president is invited to be viewed -- we are about to be told the story of Reagan's first term in office.

The use of a historical ceremony as a framing device not only fuses different narratives, but invites our approval. If we accept the film's premises, our "reward" is to partake of this ceremony....We are asked to look forward with pleasure to the drama unfolding before us....The viewer, as the "author" of lines that are not of his/her choosing, may find pleasure in reciting, along with the Chief Justice, the lines of this well-known script. It is not simply he, but we who are inagurating Ronald Reagan. ...If we accept this role, by speaking these words it is we who are sanctioning his presidency.

....From the shot of the Capitol Dome there is a dissolve of a long shot of the White House, then a dissolve to the White House grounds. The camera next pans left to the White House and dissolves to Reagan sitting alone in the Oval [O]ffice. We move both temporally and spatially from the symbols of the country, to the symbols of the Presidency, to the President himself -- the living symbol of the office. Addressing the camera, Reagan says, "Yes, it was quite a day, a new beginning -- You know, you don't really become president -- the presidency is an institution and you have temporary custody of it."

...."It's morning in America." The viewer asks, what does the rest of the day hold and what will be this man's role in the new dawning? After a monologue by George Bush, and six "man in the street" endorsements of Ronald Reagan, we hear the lyrics of a song from which strains have been heard throughout the film -- Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."

During this song we see a shot of a newly wed couple coming down church steps to greet a cheering crowd. This wedding depicts a joyous ceremony that frames the mini-narrative that follows. Once this new family is sanctified by God and witnessed by society, the family builds a house (a shot of men raising a construction wall), moves in (shot of a man, woman and children entering a house with a large rug and miscellaneous items), works hard so as to prosper (shot of welder, and shot of combine in fields at sunrise), has children (shot of little boy), and realizes that what makes this possible is America's (shot of US flag) freedoms (shot of [S]tatue of [L]iberty.) Although this freedom comes at a price (shot of a US flag-covered coffin and shot of Vietnam Vet), its cost is worth it (shot of flags and smiling faces). We, after all, are blessed by God and a leader who vows to keep us free (shot of Reagan in front of flag-draped background looking "heavenward").

....Although the movement in this sequence is variously to the left and right...the sequence culminates in a series of upward movements -- starting from the shot of the vet standing up to hug an older woman. As the camera tilts up with him, the lyric we hear is "And I'd gladly stand up next to you." This is followed by a dissolve to a flag being raised. As the camera follows the flag upward, there is a dissolve to a boy looking up in a salute, followed by a final still shot of Reagan smiling and gazing upward with a series of flags behind him and the lyric "God Bless the USA" in the background.

....This mini-narrative, beginning with the ceremonial recognition and blessing of the family (marriage ceremony) has ended with the ceremonial blessing and recognition of the man who has vowed to keep both the institution of the family and the institution of Democracy strong. Reagan is the man who makes this vision of America possible. This is the story of the American Dream. But since the story ends with an image of Ronald Reagan -- the man who is presented as most responsive to the American Dream -- we realize that this is Reagan's story as well...If we believe in the American story we must believe in the Reagan story as well.

With this last image...the narrative is handed back to Reagan, who resumes his story in first-person narrative. In voice-over Reagan speaks of his trip to South Korea as visuals display him walking in a brisk military stride flanked on either side by two officers -- one white and one black. He narrates, "We recently were on a trip to Asia. One Sunday in South Korea I went up to the demilitarized zone."....

The next scene shows Reagan in an army mess hall, joking and eating with the troops. He seems to be "just one of the boys."....Reagan, by his presence in South Jorea, dressed in fatigues, places himself on the frontier ready for battle. He is the American/Western hero fighting to defend all that is civilized (democracy) from all that is uncivilized and lying beyond the frontier (communism).

Following the mess hall scene, Reagan is seen walking through the enlisted men's quarters, shaking hands and saying "Proud to know you" to each soldier....As Reagan says "Proud to know you" to one soldier, this enlisted man replies, "Proud to know you, sir." Each hero acknowledges and reinforces the other's status. Not only through his words but through his actions, Reagan asks us to emulate his heroic behavior -- to acknowledge ordinary heroes whenever we encounter them. However, our recognition of these ordinary American heroes also invites us to recognize the perfect hero that they have recognized....

Perhaps the strongest reinforcement of Reagan as a Western/American hero appears in footage of the assassination attempt on his life. We see Reagan, surrounded by Secret Servicemen, walking, smiling, and waving to the crowds. The camera follows him....Someone calls out "President Reagan, President Reagan." A shot is heard as the camera work becomes very shaky and confusing. We see people running pell-mell....This footage reinforces the audience's belief that they are eyewitness to an historical event. Because of the shaky camera work, the lack of editing, this footage has a cinema verite look, a cinematic style that appears to allow reality to flow unimpeded through the camera to the viewer....

....Reagan continues the story. In a medium-shot and later in voice-over he says, "When I walked in [from the shooting] they were just concluding a meeting...of all the doctors associated with the hospital."....Reagan says, "Sure, when I saw all those doctors surround me, too...I said I hoped they were all Republicans" [he smiles and laughs]. The sequence of Reagan's attempted assassination and his appearance in the hospital reinforces his role as Western hero. Not only does he survive the shooting, walking into the hospital with the bullet in his chest..., he narrates his own assassination attempt, using humor to do so.

....This scene is followed by perhaps the most emotionally involving scene in the film -- edited footage of Reagan's commemorative speech at Normandy for World War II veterans....

We see shots of individual veterans in the audience and hear Reagan, as narrator of the film, say, "Sixty-two of the rangers who scaled the cliffs there at Point d'Hoc, now back forty years later to the scene of their heroic action." This is followed by a close-up of Reagan on the dais saying, "These are the boys of Point d'Hoc. These are men who took the cliffs." in voice-over we hear Reagan say, "It was a very moving experience." Accompanying this shot are various shots of veterans weeping or wiping their eyes....

....In this scene at Normandy we witness a striking example of Reagan's reliance on ordinary heroes to create his own heroic stature. Reagan's speech, given for all of the survivors of the battle at Normandy and their relatives, is turned into a personal eulogy for one American hero, a Private Zinada:

"Someday, Liz, I'll go back," said Private First Class Robert Zinada of the 37th Engineering
combat battalion and first assault wave to hit Omaha Beach. Liza Zinada-Hen began her story
by quoting her father who promised that he would return to Normandy. She ended with a promise
to her father who died eight years ago of cancer, "I'm going there, Dad, and I'll see the graves
and I'll put flowers there just like you wanted to do. I'll feel all the things you made me feel
through your stories and your eyes. I'll never forget what you went through, Dad, nor will I let
anyone else forget -- and Dad, I'll always be so proud."

....But Private Zinada, an ordinary hero, has not only been turned into a heroic role model for others, he ennobles the American spirit. Reagan continues:

Through the words of his loving daughter, who is here with us today, a D-[D]ay veteran has shown
us the meaning of this day far better than any president can. It is enough for us to say about
Private Zinada and all the men of honor and courage that fought beside him four decades ago --
we will always remember, we will always be proud, we will always be prepared, so we may be
always free.

....In his celebration of everyday heroes -- "the backbone of the country" -- Reagan himself gains heroic status.

The end of the film places Reagan's second term of office inside the historical context of presidents who have also taken the oath of office. The scene opens with a shot of photos of Reagan's desk in the Oval Office. This is followed by a shot of little figurines of soldiers on a battlefield that slowly zooms out. Over these images we hear Reagan say:

Sitting in the Oval Office you look around and sometimes you can't help but choke up a little
bit because you're surrounded by history that somehow has touched everything in this room.
And it occurs to you that every person who ever sat here yearned in the depths of his soul to
bring people and nations together in peace.

We are reminded that world peace has been a goal of many American presidents, including Reagan....The Reagan Presidency is to be viewed as the natural legacy of all that has gone before.

The historical framing in this scene, the scene at Normandy, the inauguration, and the assassination attempt, adds weight to this invitation. We are about to experience narrative closure. Our desire to see the anticipated ending in the "once upon a time" beginning of the film is about to be gratified. We realize that the narrative closure sought will not be granted, however, unless we, the American people, help write the final chapter of this story....Writing the final chapter of the narrative involves bestowing our blessing on this man by casting our vote to re-elect Ronald Reagan president.

The Reagan 18-minute political film tells the story of the Reagan Presidency and the story of an American/Western hero. These stories, overlapped, merged and woven together, are rhetorically rich due to their grounding in various historical references and ceremonies. Through the seductive quality of narrative structure -- through ceremony -- and through history...this film invites us to enter as celebrants into a community of "believers."

It can be argued that as a rhetorical document, Reagan's 18-minute film provides a powerful example of the changing shape of mass-mediated political persuasion.

*****

The 18-minute film that preceded Reagan's acceptance speech was the brainchild of the President's personal advisor, Michael Deaver. Phil Dusenberry, New York advertising executive and co-author of Robert Redford's film The Natural, plotted the treatment and produced the film at a cost of $425,000. It was shot over five days in July 1984 in various White House rooms and on the grounds of Aspen Lodge at Camp David....There was apparently no official script prepared for Reagan to use. He was simply given some talking points with certain political themes to be stressed. A series of conversations between Reagan and his speech writer Kenneth Khachigian...were then shot and edited together to create the final version....

The film was shown at the 1984 Republican National Convention on August 23....Two networks, CBS and ABC, did not air the film as part of their convention coverage, deciding instead to accompany clips from the film with journalistic commentary. The two networks who aired it, NBC and CNN, provided extensive commentary about the film's purpose, politics, and message prior to and following its screening....


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