Review: ‘Movie Nights’ memoir connects Reagans to ’80s films
“Movie Nights with the Reagans: A Memoir” (Simon & Schuster), by Mark Weinberg
The Aspen Movie Club may well have been the most exclusive gathering of its kind. Most weekend nights in the 1980s, its members appeared at 8 o’clock at Aspen Lodge, the presidential residence at Camp David, Maryland, to watch a film. The hosts were Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the guests were their staff and others on hand.
The screenings offered the Reagans an opportunity to stay in touch with what had been the family business. Reagan began his film career in the late 1930s and was more successful than his political critics would give him credit. Nancy Davis first appeared on-screen in 1949 but may have found her true calling supporting her husband’s ambitions. Most of all, however, movies at Camp David offered the former actors the same kind of escape most people seek in a dark theater.
“He didn’t screen movies based on their ideology. That’s not what our movie nights were about,” Mark Weinberg observes in a modest memoir about his years as an aide to the president. “Movie nights were a diversion from the business of governing — or the business of campaigning — and a chance for the Reagans to relax and enjoy the art form that brought them together in the first place.”
“Movie Nights with the Reagans” adds valuable touches to the warm personal images of the Reagans already established elsewhere. The president wasn’t too busy to call Weinberg into the Oval Office to return a pen he had borrowed a few days earlier. He wasn’t too big to tell the movie group that he was sorry for a crack he’d made the night before about Weinberg sounding like a communist while discussing the Soviet invasion film “Red Dawn” (1984). And the president never appeared unhappy to meet a member of his staff’s family. Such personal moments are more telling and compelling than many of the public ones Weinberg revisits as he tries — sometimes too hard — to connect the films the Reagans watched to the Reagans themselves. “The Untouchables” (1987) becomes a platform to discuss the president’s distaste for organized crime. “On Golden Pond” (1981) prompts Weinberg to speculate about whether it might have led Reagan to think about his difficult relationship with his daughter Patti. Reagan found inspiration in “Chariots of Fire” (1981), and Weinberg uses the film to discuss Reagan’s affection for British culture as well as his relationship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the royal family.
There are too few instances in which Weinberg can offer meaningful memories of the Reagans commenting on a film, a disappointment given the book’s title. One worth noting: Both were unhappy with the pot smoking in the comedy “9 to 5” (1980) and Mrs. Reagan even referenced it in her “just say no” campaign against drug use. On the other hand, Weinberg provides enough anecdotes away from the screenings to give his book an insider’s vibe and to add to our understanding of Reagan the man if not Reagan the fan.
Weinberg says the Reagans screened more than 360 films in their eight years in Washington. They preferred those that were light, humorous and fun — “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) were among their favorites — and had little to say for one driven by violence and sex. Even as the industry changed, the president remained a fan of the lively art that gave him a career and the skills to communicate his vision for the nation’s future.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky)