Perseverance pays off for professor behind ‘Reagan’ biopic

Paul Kengor has been waiting a long time to see this movie.

When the presidential biopic “Reagan” opens nationwide in August, it will be nearly 20 years since the Grove City College political science professor got a call from Hollywood producer Mark Joseph, who had just read Kengor’s 2004 book "God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life."

“Mark called to tell me that he had just read the book and wanted to turn it into a movie,” Kengor said. “He said that book was the one he was always waiting for on Reagan, especially because it understood, grasped, and informed the world of the paramount importance of Reagan’s Christian faith.”

Kengor and Joseph – whose credits include work on “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and other films – would spend the intervening years trying to get the movie made through sheer dedication and perseverance.

They faced struggles with financing, distribution, and liberal elites in the film industry who were not interested in making a movie about a successful and beloved Republican president. The fact that “Reagan” exists is being called a victory over Hollywood’s anti-conservative bias.

“It’s insane to think that it took this long to make a major feature film about the most popular president in our lifetimes, but such is the challenge in getting Hollywood to make a film about a conservative Republican icon,” Kengor said. “Mark was doubted every step of the way, but he would not give up. This was his passion.”

The finished film, directed by Sean McNamara, is actually based on Kengor’s second Reagan book, “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism,” which was published in 2006. “When Mark first called me, I was already working on ‘The Crusader,’” said Kengor. “That book opens with the young Reagan lifeguarding at the Rock River in his hometown of Dixon, Illinois. I told Mark, ‘That’s the story that you want for a movie.’”

Kengor served as adviser to the filmmakers. “The Crusader" has just been reissued by publisher Harper Perennial in anticipation of the movie.

"Paul is such a meticulous researcher and his book ‘The Crusader’ was helpful in guiding us to tell Reagan's story accurately,” Joseph said. In a nod to the original work, a Soviet spy played by Jon Voight utters the words “the Crusader” at the beginning of the film.

“Reagan” doesn’t lionize its subject. That is in large part due to Kengor’s strengths as a scholar and researcher, Joseph said. “A story about a perfect person isn't very interesting so it was important that Paul painted a full portrait of Reagan that was even-handed. He obviously respects him but he's a historian first and so he covers him fairly and doesn't gloss over his failures. That was important to us and to our director Sean McNamara."

Along with Voight, the cast includes veteran leading man Dennis Quaid as Reagan, Penelope Ann Miller as Nancy Reagan, C. Thomas Howell, Mena Suvari, Nick Searcy, Kevin Sorbo, Lesley-Anne Down, Kevin Dillon, and Creed frontman Scott Stapp as Frank Sinatra. Actors Tommy Regan and David Henrie portray Reagan as a young boy and teenager, respectively.

The movie traces Reagan’s American journey from humble beginnings in Dixon, Ill., to stardom in Hollywood and political power in Washington D.C., where, as the nation’s 40th president, he was instrumental in bringing the Cold War to an end, advancing conservative principles, and restoring a nation’s confidence and power.

While Kengor is confident that the “family-friendly” film will appeal to a broad audience, he believes it may resonate strongly with young people – who have no first-hand memory of Reagan or the Cold War that defined half of the 20th century – because of its treatment of the future president’s youth.

“Ronald Reagan was so deeply impacted by his childhood, teen, and college years in ways that clearly affected what he did as president of the United States in the 1980s,” he said.

The young Reagan spent seven years as a lifeguard on the Rock River in his hometown of Dixon, where he saved 77 people from drowning, Kengor said. That, he said, instilled “a deep respect for the sanctity and dignity of every human life, as well as a confidence and literal lifesaving mentality” in Reagan.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that it gave Reagan a supreme, unshakable confidence that he could do the impossible and even one day rescue his fellow Americans and the world from the scourge of evil, atheistic Soviet communism.”

Kengor isn’t Grove City College’s only connection to “Reagan.” The movie was filmed, in part, at the Reagans’ Rancho del Cielo in California. Known as the “Western White House” during his presidency, the property is now operated by Young America’s Foundation and its director is alumnus Andrew Coffin ’98, who Kengor noted was sitting in the front row of the first class he taught at the College.

Coffin and the Ranch’s staff were “wonderful and indispensable” to shooting on location, Kengor said. “They opened up the ranch to filmmakers. Among the most touching, inspiring scenes in the film are the ranch scenes, especially as the film ends with Ronald Reagan on a horse literally riding off into the sunset,” he said.

Kengor will be attending the Hollywood premiere of “Reagan” on August 20 at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with his wife and “most” of his eight children. It will be his first time seeing the finished film and, based on a rough cut he saw two years ago, he’s excited about it.

“The whole thing is so good. It’s an excellent film,” Kengor said.

A prolific writer of books and commentary and one of the country’s leading Reagan scholars, Kengor has served on the faculty at Grove City College since 1997. He is senior director and chief academic fellow for The Institute for Faith & Freedom, the College’s think tank and dynamic learning community that connects, educates, and empowers American citizens. Kengor is also the editor of The American Spectator.

“Reagan” opens nationally on August 29. For more about the movie, visit

Perseverance pays off for professor behind ‘Reagan’ biopic

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