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`Reagan' strikes a balance

"Reagan," the two-part, 4 1/2-hour documentary from PBS's "The American Experience," probably isn't going to make anyone altogether happy.

Fans of the 40th president of the United States aren't going to like this warts-and-all portrayal of Ronald Reagan that chronicles his failures as a family man, governor and president and his increasingly vague behavior as he grew older.On the other hand, Reagan foes aren't going to like the fact that this documentary gives the man credit where its due - and credits him with ending the Cold War almost single-handedly.

Of course, the fact that neither side is going to be entirely pleased means that "Reagan" has probably hit the proper balance.

The documentary, which airs tonight and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7, is television's first major attempt to put some historical perspective to Reagan. And it's an interesting task, given that it's only been nine years since he left the White House.

"I think it gives us an opportunity to examine material that is fresh in our minds," said "Experience" executive producer Margaret Drain. "We've all lived through the two administrations of Ronald Reagan, and there has been significant scholarship done on him.

"It doesn't mean that this is the final television biography that will ever be done on Ronald Reagan. But if we do our job carefully, I think it will last quite a long time."

This is actually two documentaries that are very different in tone, style and scope. The two-hour part 1 focuses on all of Reagan's life up through the end of his first term as president; the 21/2-hour part 2 focuses on his second term, concentrating on his crusade to bring down the Soviet Union.

Part 1 is the work of pro-duc-er/director Adriana Bosch; Austin Hoyt produced and wrote Part 2.

Part 1 - titled "Lifeguard" - follows Reagan from his boyhood in small-town Illinois. And makes much of his job as a summer lifeguard who saved 77 lives - a job that, according to the documentary, helped mold the man he became.

We see him as a sportscaster, a B-movie actor, and the Communist-battling president of the Screen Actors Guild. We see him as a TV host and corporate spokesman for General Electric. We see him as a convert to conservatism who became the unlikely governor of California and, eventually president of the United States.

We hear about him from a variety of people, including political leaders, Reagan administration officials, foreign leaders - including Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev - and family members, including his wife and three of his four children.

"We thought the family would know more about him than a lot of other people," Bosch said. "And since we were trying to draw a character, we thought the family was the place to go."

And these are not all positive comments from the Reagan family. Both his son, Ron, and his daughter, Patti, paint a picture of a man who was often disengaged from his own children. Even the documentarians were a bit surprised at some of the comments.

"Austin (Hoyt) interviewed Ron, who was incredibly candid and forthcoming in terms of his relationship to (his father) and in terms of how the family dynamics developed," Bosch said. "We thought that that brought us much closer to what he was like as a man."

Not that they solve all the puzzles of his life. Much is made of his simple Christian faith, but the fact that he rarely attended church as an adult is glossed over.

"Reagan" doesn't overlook the man's flaws, but it does tend to excuse them. His inability to focus on the wide spectrum of issues that confronted him is painted as a virtue - it allowed him to concentrate on the single issue of the Cold War.

"I think that when you judge Ronald Reagan, you have to sort of look at him in his own terms," Bosch said. "This is a man who has a very narrow radar. And it's narrowed even more as he's getting older. He's really saving his energies to focus on the issues that are really important to him at the time - relations with the Soviet Union, the one overriding issue that was consuming a lot of his attention and his focus."

And that focus is the subject of Tuesday's installment, "An American Crusade."

"I suspect that the ending of the Cold War will turn out to be the seminal event of our lifetimes and Ronald Reagan played a very central role in ending the Cold War," said Herb Meyer, a Reagan administration intelligence official and consultant on the documentary. "The way they deal with his decision to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, the skill with which he did it and the kind of climax of the documentary at the Reykjavick summit is something that's often overlooked.

"He became evangelical in his ardor, particularly against communism, and it's very significant that he chose to articulate his hatred and his complete contempt for the evil empire to an audience of Christian evangelicals in 1983."

Altogether, "Reagan" is an admirable achievement from "The American Experience" - the home of some of television's best documentary work. No matter how you felt about Ronald Reagan, you're bound to learn things you didn't know before and gain a different perspective on the man and his presidency.