He Found It at the Movies

Movie Nights with the Reagans BY Mark Weinberg. New York: Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $17.

The cover of Movie Nights with the Reagans

“IF IT WAS A FRIDAY NIGHT, the president’s hair would look much softer and shinier than usual, because he had washed it that afternoon,” Mark Weinberg remembers in Movie Nights with the Reagans, his 2018 memoir detailing the many evenings he spent at Camp David seeing films with President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. Throughout Reagan’s two terms in the 1980s, Weinberg, then an assistant White House press officer, accompanied the Reagans on their weekend trips to Camp David, the compound located in the hills of Maryland that has been the official retreat of US presidents since 1942. Sitting in the dark with them for so many hours must have given him a good look at the back of Reagan’s head.

They screened Hollywood movies at Camp David on each trip, usually new ones, everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Oh, God! Book II, after settling in with popcorn and glasses of water and removing a painting that hid the window of the Aspen Lodge’s 35-mm projection room. Weinberg was twenty-three when he began working in the White House. His youthful proximity to the power and glamour of our first real movie-star president colors his account with awe. To him, Reagan is inspiring and irreproachable, with an Honest Abe sense of fairness and decency.

Others who have written about Reagan’s time in office are more likely to mention how the president would fall asleep during meetings with other heads of state. Those historians, however, did not bring Reagan “smooth-centered chocolates” when they watched movies together. Weinberg’s loving account of the president is also a portrait of himself as an obsequious stooge, an earlier version of Gary Walsh, the assistant Tony Hale played on Veep. At another point in the book, Reagan over-apologizes to Weinberg for joking that something Weinberg said made him sound like a communist. Weinberg, touched by this, doesn’t see it as the reaction of a man who had been a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, one who secretly snitched to the FBI on fellow actors in Hollywood he considered communist sympathizers. The irony is lost because there is not a hint of anything less than total admiration in Movie Nights with the Reagans. To get permission to write it, Weinberg made a special pilgrimage to Bel Air, seeking approval from Nancy Reagan herself, weeks before she died.

John Badham, WarGames, 1983. MGM
John Badham, WarGames, 1983. MGM

MOVIE NIGHTS WITH THE REAGANS is hagiography, but it is also a personal document of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1980s from Ronald Reagan’s point of view, recorded at his elbow. Weinberg makes sure to tell us that at Camp David, they “didn’t screen movies based on their ideology.” For the Reagans, he writes, movies were “an escape from politics” and a “diversion from the business of governing . . . a chance for the Reagans to relax and enjoy the art form.” Ideology and politics, however, are notoriously hard to escape when enjoying art forms, which must be especially true if you’re the living embodiment of national power. From the beginning of Weinberg’s book, it’s clear that however casual these screenings were, they were also a chance for the Reagans to hash out their thoughts on contemporary culture and politics, and then turn their movie-prompted insights into policies that would affect people’s lives. There were ramifications for everyone if President Reagan happened to see, for instance, Rocky IV over the weekend. He saw that one in January 1986 and liked it because “it had a very happy ending. He beats the Russians.” Hollywood and Reagan worked together to create the “dream life” that J. Hoberman (who quotes from Weinberg’s memoir) identifies as replacing reality in his new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan. For Hoberman, the dream life is the current in America’s unconscious mind where ideology lives unseen, where it is shaped by movies.

The Reagans’ reaction to 9 to 5, the first movie Weinberg covers and one of the first the president screened in the Aspen Lodge, proves the point. A strongly feminist and prolabor workplace comedy released in 1980, the film costars Jane Fonda, a Hollywood prodigal daughter and demonized left-wing radical who appears more than once in Weinberg’s book. That aside, according to Weinberg, it was the use of marijuana by the women in the film—while “sharing revenge fantasies against their boss”—that angered the Reagans. The scene would have been “truly funny,” Reagan explained post-screening, “if the three gals had played getting drunk, but no, they had to get stoned on pot.”

The Reagans seized on something harmless but illicit in 9 to 5 that allowed them to justify their disappointment with everything else in the film, and with what it reflected in modern life. The movie also reminded them of their opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, but they glommed on to what Nancy later called “the notion of drug acceptability.” The first lady alluded to 9 to 5 when she introduced her “Just Say No” antidrug campaign to the world, sarcastically describing a movie in which three women coworkers “get hilariously high on pot.” Anti-ideology in action: When Reagan left office eight years later, drug offenses had doubled the US prison population. It was not office workers like the ones Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin played in 9 to 5 who made up that newly incarcerated population.

It is in the Reagan years that the right-wing impetus to identify pop-culture items as tacit instances of ideological support or opposition became entrenched in the Republican mindset. This process was aided in no small part by Hollywood, which began serving up productions geared to reflect the newly capitalistic, post-hippie values of Boomers as they entered middle age. Ghostbusters, which the Reagans saw in July 1984, a month after it came out, shows how. Weinberg does “not recall the film making a major impression on the president,” but he devotes an entire chapter to it anyway—here, Hoberman’s dream life functions for Reagan’s supporters while the president is sleeping.

The massive success of Ghostbusters “energized the 1984 campaign” for Reagan’s reelection, according to Weinberg, with its catchy theme song and its branded logo, a proto-meme Americans saw everywhere that summer. Weinberg begins his chapter on the film by highlighting the “Fritzbusters,” a troupe of College Republicans from Texas. They dressed up as Ghostbusters stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis and drove to college campuses in a tricked-out ambulance like the one in the movie, singing a satirical, pro-Reagan version of the theme song. According to the new lyrics, Reagan’s opponent in the election, Democratic candidate Walter “Fritz” Mondale, represented “something strange in America.”

When the Democrats tried to repurpose Ghostbusters to their own ends during their national convention, hawking “Reaganbuster” T-shirts using the Ghostbusters logo themselves, it was a typical lame gesture from the Democratic Party, offered too late in the game. Mondale was a ghost whose brand of liberal politics had already been busted. By 1984 the Democrats had lost the image war. They had ignored more than four years of genuine anti-Reagan youth rebellion, which had produced thousands of images like the cover of Jello Biafra’s 1981 punk compilation, Let Them Eat Jellybeans!, trying instead to get in on the kind of mass-produced Hollywood action that always favors those in power.

Weinberg points out that Ghostbusters was named to a list of best conservative movies by National Review magazine in 2009 because “the bad guy” in it “is a regulation-happy buffoon from the EPA.” Surely there is more to it than hating the Environmental Protection Agency. Ghostbusters suggested to the Reagan youth who saw it that they could get away with a lot while their leader’s eyes were closed. One of the main Fritzbusters was Jack Abramoff, then the National Committee chairman of the College Republicans. As a Fritzbuster, he wore “coveralls, black rubber gloves, and goggles.” Less than a year into his tenure at Citizens for America, a pro-Contra group Abramoff joined after the election, he was fired for mishandling funds, the first in a long series of misdeeds. He went on to make millions as a shady lobbyist before eventually landing in federal prison. Locked up, he taught a screenwriting class for the other inmates, and ran, according to the New York Times, “a highly popular movie night.”

Reagan’s most well-known connection to 1980s movies is the Strategic Defense Initiative, accurately nicknamed the “Star Wars” defense system by Senator Teddy Kennedy. Reagan at first found the name annoying, but embraced it after he saw Return of the Jedi. He had started calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire” two months before the third Star Wars movie was released. After it came out, he realized he could say things like “the force is with us” when defending SDI to reporters. Weinberg compares Reagan to Luke Skywalker and speculates that the president saw his alcoholic father, Jack, in Darth Vader—an odd connection to make when discussing Reagan’s so-called “Darth Vader” speech about the Soviet Union, which he called “the focus of evil in the modern world.”

Fantasy was not Reagan’s favorite genre, in any case: Its myths were too disconnected from the heroism of World War II. But he did host a screening of E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial at the White House in June 1982, a couple of weeks after the film came out. This was the infamous screening after which Reagan made a speech saying “everything on that screen is absolutely true,” a bizarre moment even by the standards of a president who often confused real life with movies he acted in or had merely seen. Spielberg later claimed Reagan was so moved by the film that he “looked like a ten-year-old kid” while watching it. Both men wanted to transport the nation into a state of eternal childhood innocence.

Whatever emotions passed between Reagan and Spielberg that night, Reagan did say one thing to the director that made sense. He complained that the credits at the end of contemporary movies went on too long. “In my day, when I was an actor, our end credits were maybe fifteen seconds long,” he explained. “Reduce your credits to fifteen seconds at the end,” he suggested to Spielberg. If Reagan was right about anything, it was that. He may have declared ketchup a vegetable and claimed trees cause pollution, but his greatest achievement could have been making that a law. Now we’re stuck with end credits that balloon like the federal deficit did while he was in charge.

A year into Reagan’s second term, NBC-TV aired a tribute called An All-Star Party for “Dutch” Reagan—“Dutch,” Reagan’s nickname as a toddler, had stuck into old age. Clad in tuxedos and gowns, the guests were a combo of classic Hollywood ham and 1980s cheese: James Stewart, Angie Dickinson, Sammy Davis Jr., Telly Savalas, Alex Trebek, John Ritter, and the stars of the TV show Dynasty. Frank Sinatra, “a favorite of Nancy’s,” hosted with Monty Hall, from the TV game show Let’s Make a Deal. Charlton Heston delivered a grave and loony speech, telling the president, “You speak to mankind in our name.” The show ended with Sinatra and Dean Martin, Democrats and Kennedy supporters in their Rat Pack days, duetting on a version of “Auld Lang Syne” directed at the president.

It was a send-off, three years early. When Reagan finally left the White House in 1989, he retired into Alzheimer’s disease (“Should old acquaintance be forgot”). Weinberg worked for him in his Century City office, located in the building that had been christened “Nakatomi Plaza” for the Bruce Willis action movie Die Hard the year before. Asked to play the mayor of a western town in Back to the Future Part III, Reagan declined, missing a chance to bookend a series that had expressed good-natured incredulity at his presidency in its first entry, along with a chance to be in a movie with ZZ Top and Flea. Reagan and Nancy had seen Back to the Future at Camp David. He liked it enough to quote it in a speech about the space program, which effectively ended with him after the Challenger exploded in 1986: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” This statement—drawn directly from the dream life—was the opposite of Barack Obama’s “Somebody invested in roads and bridges.” Obama’s observation was boring, un-Hollywood, and uninspiring, but it had the virtue of being true.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH TRIED TO KEEP THE MOVIE GLAMOUR GOING after Reagan was gone. A month before taking office, while Reagan was still president, Bush hosted the premiere of the comedy My Stepmother Is an Alien in Washington, DC, hoping for some of that E. T. or Ghostbusters magic to rub off on him. It didn’t, despite the photos of Poppy standing shoulder to shoulder with Kim Basinger and Dan Aykroyd in the cineplex lobby. The Bushes were wimpy, mean-spirited, and close-minded. They were awkward. Awkwardness was their defining feature, alongside greed. The gleam in their eye was for the wrong things, and they were not oblivious enough to project total sincerity at all times, or even very often. They just weren’t movie people. They were oil people, baseball people, CIA people who knew the Hinckleys, the Texas family of John Hinckley Jr., who shot Reagan because Taxi Driver had driven him mad.

Strangely, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were movie people. Mark Feeney’s fascinating book Nixon at the Movies (2004) reveals that Nixon watched two or three movies a week while he was president. Nixon is known for finding inspiration in Patton, the George C. Scott military biopic, but Feeney makes the case that Nixon’s relationship with Hollywood was more complicated than that. He loved movies and watched them seriously while at the same time hating and resenting the Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which dismissed him as a corrupt warmonger and a square.

Carter saw more movies as president than anyone else who has held the office since the White House and Camp David installed projection rooms. In just his one four-year term, he saw over four hundred films, everything from Buffalo Bill and the Indians and The Shining to The Marriage of Maria Braun and Annie Hall, which he screened twice. Reagan may have had the Star Wars defense system, but Carter actually watched Star Wars at Camp David, in a secret meeting with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

Serious filmgoing in the White House ended after Reagan. When Obama told Katie Couric in a TV interview, “I’m a movie guy—I can rattle off a bunch of movies,” he almost made Nixon seem hip. The first movie Obama made a point of seeing in office was Avatar, which he took his daughters to see at a mall. When he and Michelle gifted the British prime minister with a pile of classic American films on Region 1 DVDs that wouldn’t play in England (Region 2), it was clear that this was no cinephile.

The first film the current occupant of the White House screened was Finding Dory, an animated movie evidently chosen for his son and his staffers’ children to see. Trump, the only other president besides Reagan with a Screen Actors Guild pension, is more of a TV watcher, as we have learned: The current president’s mass-entertainment apotheosis was small-screen all the way, playing a pumped-up version of himself on a boardroom set in a reality-TV game show. Reality has merged with his game show as cable news covers his frolics and jests. But his taste in movies defines him nonetheless. His two favorites are said to be Citizen Kane and Bloodsport, a brutal 1988 martial arts movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, in which Van Damme has to fight blind. There it is, the Trump administration summed up in one weird double feature.

A Democratic member of the House, Representative Lee Hamilton from Indiana, once described Reagan as having made only one contribution in a meeting on nuclear missiles. The president interrupted the discussion to announce that he had seen WarGames the night before, then related how the teenage Matthew Broderick had mistakenly enabled a government supercomputer to launch nuclear weapons.

Thanks to Movie Nights with the Reagans, we now know what happened during that screening of WarGames at Camp David. Weinberg remembers one scene in particular. In the movie, a general at NORAD, standing under a portrait of Reagan, worries that a nuclear war has begun. He picks up the phone and yells, “Get me the president!” When that happened in the movie, everyone in the Aspen Lodge, including President Reagan, turned to look at the telephone on the table next to him, expecting it to ring.

A. S. Hamrah is the film critic for n+1 and the author of the book The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018 (n+1 Books, 2018).