Sundance Film Festival
Ronald Reagan in a scene from Eugene Jarecki's documentary "Reagan," which is playing at Sundance.

Ronald Reagan left the White House 21 years ago and died in 2004, yet his name is constantly invoked by current politicians from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin.

"He's in the news so much now you would think he was alive, well and running the country," said filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, whose documentary "Reagan" is playing at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

"You can't have a discussion about politics without mentioning Ronald Reagan."

Jarecki's film is bound to spark more debate over the legacy of the Hollywood actor who transformed himself into one of the 20th-century's most influential politicians.

The movie — which HBO will air Feb. 7, the day after Reagan's centennial birthday — reveals his good and bad sides.

There's the genial leader who gave Americans a renewed sense of optimism after the depressing Jimmy Carter years, and the proponent of economic policies that made the rich richer and damaged the poor and middle class.

There's the fierce anti-Communist whose military buildup helped hasten the end of the Cold War, and the president whose administration traded arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra scandal.

"Ronald Reagan had many fine qualities and he had many shortcomings," Jarecki, 41, said during an interview in Park City. "He's not the simple, folksy figure that he's often portrayed as."

While many tea party leaders cite him as their hero, Jarecki said he thinks Reagan would be turned off by the ultra-conservative movement.

"His track record of pragmatism, depth and candor all speak to a person who would find the tea party simplistic, opportunistic and misguided," he said. "Reagan was surrounded by some very smart people who gave him very sound advice. They were not wondering where certain countries are on the map."

According to Jarecki, many myths about Reagan have been perpetuated by people trying to exploit his enduring popularity. They include claims that Reagan shrunk the federal government, never raised taxes and took a hard-line against illegal immigration.

"None of that is true," Jarecki said. "These myths endure because they're well-packaged and because he's an enormously endearing, compelling human being. He's like a very successful brand that helps sell the product."

Jarecki, who has made documentaries on Henry Kissinger and the U.S. military, conceded that he wasn't a Reagan fan when he started the film. And he still thinks Reaganomics ultimately was a failure.

But Jarecki grew to admire Reagan as a man.

"He makes that incredibly easy because he's immensely likable, and he made an incredible journey in his life," he said.

During a question-and-answer session after the film's Sundance premiere, several audience members accused Jarecki of being too soft on Reagan.

"If you're talking about bending over backward to be fair, then I'm guilty as charged," he said. "I don't think American political discourse is served by anyone who isn't willing to take an evenhanded approach. There's enough hyperbole out there already."

The film includes interviews with James A. Baker, Pat Buchanan and other members of Reagan's inner circle, as well as Reagan biographers Edmund Morris and Lou Cannon. The most revealing interview, however, is with the former president's youngest son, Ron Reagan.

He praises his father for his wisdom and kindness, but admits that he messed up with Iran-Contra.

"My father was both smarter and better than people on the left think he was, and less the giant than many on the right think he was," the younger Reagan says in the film.

Though Nancy Reagan wasn't interviewed, the movie emphasizes the influential role she played in her husband's life.

"She always looked out for her husband's best interests," Jarecki said. "She was the love of his life and his best friend."