Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book Review: Movie Nights With the Reagans: A Memoir

MOVIE NIGHTS WITH THE REAGANS: A MEMOIR is a new book by Mark Weinberg. It was published just over a week ago, on February 27th.

My attention was immediately captured by the publisher's description: "Former special advisor and press secretary to President Ronald Reagan shares an intimate, behind-the-scenes look inside the Reagan presidency -- told through the movies they watched together every week at Camp David."

The subject matter is a wonderful mashup of my love for movies -- including a fondness for Ronald Reagan the actor -- and my admiration of Ronald Reagan the President. The book provides a great opportunity to "peek behind the curtain" to the Reagans' weekends at Camp David, including their reactions to a variety of movies.

The Reagans saw 363 movies in their eight years in the White House, with the last the author saw with them being CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA (1954), in which Reagan starred with Barbara Stanwyck. The book focuses on a much smaller number of significant titles; each of the book's 17 chapters is themed around a film, with the date the Reagans viewed it heading each chapter. Other films are referenced more briefly throughout the course of the book.

Most of the chapters were inspired by films released during the Reagan Presidency; I saw the vast majority of the '80s films discussed in the book when they were first released, which made the book particularly enjoyable for me.

Films in which Reagan starred, KNUTE ROCKNE ALL AMERICAN (1940) and BEDTIME FOR BONZO (1951), along with the Reagans' costarring HELLCATS OF THE NAVY (1957), receive their own chapters as well.

The film discussed in each chapter also provides a theme for addressing varied aspects of the Reagan years, often showing the interesting ways that politics and popular culture interwine. For instance, the RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) chapter leads to a discussion of President Reagan referring to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" and to his plans for a missile shield defense system (SDI) being nicknamed "Star Wars." Both the "evil empire" speech and plans for SDI predated RETURN OF THE JEDI, yet they became mixed up with STAR WARS terms of the same era, thanks in part to the existence of two previous STAR WARS films.

Further along the lines of the melding of history and pop culture, it was fun to be reminded that President Reagan quoted BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) in his 1986 State of the Union address.

For a President always concerned with the Soviet Union and the possibility of nuclear war, WARGAMES (1983) made an impression and was even cited by him during a talk with Congressmen on the dangers of an inadvertent launch. The book notes that "life imitated art" just months later when the Soviet Union's early warning system malfunctioned.

The British film CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981) leads to a description of the Reagans' friendship with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, while a chapter inspired by OH GOD! BOOK II (1980) -- one of the few films discussed I've not seen -- prompts a short discussion on President Reagan's religious faith. That chapter also contains brief yet moving memories from the Reagans' goddaughter Tessa Taylor, daughter of the President's close friend Robert Taylor, as well as the Reagans' happy memories of actor George Burns.

I especially enjoyed the KNUTE ROCKNE chapter, with stories of how Pat O'Brien helped Reagan win his role in the film, as well as O'Brien's kindness to Reagan's father. I loved reading how honored Reagan felt working with Pat O'Brien, who grows further in my estimation as I see his films and learn more about him.

The author makes no secret of his admiration and appreciation for his former boss, and as a Reagan admirer myself, that made the book all the more enjoyable. It's a fast-paced and engaging read which I recommend.

MOVIE NIGHTS WITH THE REAGANS was published by Simon & Schuster. It's 261 pages, including the index. There are 2 inserts of glossy candid photos. The book is attractively designed, with a beautiful cover.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy of this book.


OpenID Walter Severs said...

Laura, thank you for the good article on this most interesting book. I'm an admirer of President Ronald Reagan and I think he was the last great President. There have only been seven great ones. President Reagan loved the United States of America.

Last night I watched DARK VICTORY(1939), which was an early role for actor Reagan. I look forward to reading Mark Weinberg's memoir. Thanks, Laura.

6:50 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Walter, for whatever it is worth, I feel the same way about President Reagan, certainly being the last successful or great president. As for the other greats, Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and while I like both Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Jackson (for the sheer adventure and temperament of the guy), James K. Polk works for me. And while he did not get re-elected, that isn't a determining factor. Polk had the vision to expand the country. Manifest Destiny. Love it. What do you think.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I hope you will both enjoy the book, which is most enjoyable and sheds some interesting light on what it was like working with the Reagans over an extended period of time.

Best wishes,

11:47 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

The era of Reagan-Thatcher-Gorbachev was in many ways an exciting and hopeful time. Sadly the pygmies in charge of everything today don't begin to match up.

A particular favourite Reagan film for me is "LAW AND ORDER" (1953) which my parents took me to see as a young child on its release.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

What a neat movie-going memory, Jerry! I loved LAW AND ORDER (1953). A tremendous cast of favorites, and among other things it certainly changed my perceptions of Russell Johnson, who I had mostly known to that point for GILLIGAN'S ISLAND.

Best wishes,

8:41 AM  
OpenID Walter Severs said...

Mr. Lane, I know and appreciate that Laura's wonderful blog site isn't a political forum, just because she wrote that she admired President Ronald Reagan doesn't make it one. This is a haven for fans of Classic Movies and Laura has made it that way.

Regarding President James K. Polk, I've only seen him portrayed three times in movies and TV. Ian Wolfe in CALIFORNIA(1947), Addison Richards in THE OREGON TRAIL(1959), and Noble Willingham in the TV Mini Series DREAM WEST(April, 1986). Although, there may be others that I haven't seen. I think President James Knox Polk has been over shadowed by President Andrew Jackson and President A. Lincoln. Also, I think that President James K. Polk is the greatest president that most people have never heard of, much less know anything about.

9:23 PM  

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