One of the anecdotes studded like candied fruit throughout “Fiasco,” a six-episode documentary about the Iran-contra affair, involves the C.I.A.’s prepping of Ronald Reagan for his first summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Knowing that reading was not Reagan’s preferred method of absorbing information, the agency prepared, to his delight, a film biography of the Soviet leader with whom he was about to negotiate the fate of the world.
Four decades later, we’re all Ronald Reagan, getting our knowledge through screens and speakers. You could criticize “Fiasco” as lightweight for its reliance on personalities, piquant details and staged visual motifs (like a reconstruction of Oliver North’s office that frequently serves as a silent, eerie mood setter). It makes more sense, though, to praise it for the trouble it takes to make meaningful history digestible and entertaining, and to appreciate both the scrupulousness and the artfulness that it brings to bear.
“Fiasco” began as a podcast hosted by Leon Neyfakh, who narrates the television version (premiering Sunday on Epix). It’s the second podcast-to-TV project for Neyfakh and his producing team, following the Watergate history “Slow Burn,” shown on Epix last year and available on Epix’s Amazon Prime Video channel.
Neyfakh and his collaborators have done other podcast series on subjects like school busing in Boston and the Benghazi attack. But their two TV series feel like consecutive chapters in a chronicle of American ethical and geopolitical decline, a continuing slow death interrupted by brief rallies like the administration of Jimmy Carter. It’s Carter who makes “Fiasco” flow straight out of “Slow Burn,” his election a reaction to the rot of Watergate and his humiliation by the Tehran hostage crisis a prelude to Iran-contra.
Both shows have a style and a prevailing mood that incorporate true-crime documentary conventions, podcast fussiness and generational perspective. Neyfakh’s narration and interpretation, while sparing, lend a trace of self-consciousness. And if you lived through the events being depicted, the 30-something Neyfakh’s presentation of them can have a slightly irritating flavor of nostalgia and condescension, emphasizing the quaintness of the not-that-distant past.
But in a way, that nostalgia is the message: There is a quaintness in Richard Nixon’s comeuppance in “Slow Burn,” in a time when there was still a generally shared sense of right and wrong. A decade later, in “Fiasco,” we see a transitional period, as the minimal fallout for Reagan from Iran-contra begins to normalize the White House’s trampling of the Constitution.
Neyfakh aims for a mixture of surprise and sentiment rather than outrage, and in service of that he’s a deft storyteller, moving back and forth in time and homing in on sometimes obscure events to make sense of the unwieldy, stranger-than-fiction Iran-contra saga: two separate and scandalous instances of government malfeasance — a secret swap of arms for prisoners in the Middle East and an illegal prosecution of war in Central America — that became intertwined when both were put in North’s hands.
Keeping that narrative coherent and lively is an engaging and largely unfamiliar battery of talking heads. Among the principal chroniclers are the reporter Doyle McManus; the refreshingly casual Howard Teicher, a National Security Council staff member at the time; and the former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who is heard but not seen, a ghostly logistical hitch that actually seems appropriate given his mournful, repentant testimony.
The shows keep their gaze firmly on the past, and Neyfakh avoids editorializing in his occasional conjectures about motives and outcomes. But the resonance of “Slow Burn” and “Fiasco,” both made during the term of Donald Trump, with current American rancor is inescapable. McManus gets something like the last word in “Fiasco,” saying that the lesson of Iran-contra lies in the immense difficulty of putting limits on a modern president.
Neyfakh has speculated that people will find reassurance in his accounts of political crises that came and went. But the message of “Fiasco” may have less to do with the survival of the American political system than with the American public’s willingness, if not eagerness, to dismiss something when they sense that it poses no danger to their safety or standard of living. Fear will trump scandal every time.
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