Review: ‘Fiasco,’ a Look at How America Got to Where It Is

C.I.A. preparations for Ronald Reagan’s first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 are one of the incidents in the six-episode documentary on the Iran-contra crisis, “Fiasco.” Since reading was not Reagan’s chosen mode of learning, the CIA made a cinematic biography of the Soviet leader with whom he was going to discuss the future of the world, much to Reagan’s surprise and joy.

Four decades later, we’re all Ronald Reagans, relying on displays and speakers to learn. This movie could be considered flimsy because of its overreliance on the performances of the actors and the clever use of props and staged scenes (like Oliver North’s office, which is often used to create an ominous atmosphere).

Instead of praising it for the effort required to make serious history accessible and enjoyable, it makes more sense to commend it for both its meticulousness and its artistry.

As an audio podcast hosted by Leon Neyfakh, the narrator of the television version, “Fiasco” began (premiering Sunday on Epix). After the Watergate documentary “Slow Burn,” which aired on Epix last year and is now accessible on Amazon Prime Video, this is Neyfakh and his production team’s second podcast-to-TV endeavour.

Previously, Neyfakh and his team have produced podcasts on the Boston school busing controversy and the Benghazi terrorist incident. Both of these shows feel like a chronicle of America’s ethical and geopolitical collapse, interrupted only by brief rallies like that of the Carter administration. Carter is the author of “Fiasco,” whose election was a response to Watergate’s rot and his humiliation by the Tehran hostage crisis was a prelude to the Iran-contra negotiations.

Using true crime documentary tropes, podcast fussiness, and generational viewpoint, both shows have their own distinct aesthetics and prevailing tone. Despite his restraint, Neyfakh’s narration and interpretation have an air of self-consciousness about them. Aside from that, if you were alive during those times, you may find that 30-year-old Neyfakh’s portrayal has an overly nostalgic and condescending tone to it, stressing the nostalgia of days gone by that seem so far away.

It’s almost as if that sense of wistfulness is the point of the story: Richard Nixon’s downfall in “Slow Burn” has a nostalgic quality to it, as if it were set in an era when morality was still widely accepted. Reagan’s minimal consequence from Iran-contra ten years later, in “Fiasco,” begins to normalise the White House’s abuse of Constitutional law.

Rather than outrage, Neyfakh aims to surprise and touch the reader’s heart with the tale of the bizarre Iran-contra saga, which involves two separate scandals: a covert arms trade in the Middle East and an illegal war in Central America that occurred as a result of the United States government’s failure to follow the law.

An interesting cast of characters, most of whom are unknown to the audience, helps keep the story moving along. At the time, National Security Council staffer Howard Teicher and former national security adviser Robert McFarlane were the primary chroniclers. Doyle McManus and Robert McFarlane, who is heard but not seen due to a ghostly logistical hitch that actually seems appropriate given his mournful, repentant testimony, are also important chroniclers to note.

There is no editorialising in the programmes, and Neyfakh avoids speculation about causes and consequences in his occasional conjectures. Slow Burn and Fiasco, both released during Trump’s presidency, have an unavoidable connection with present American rage. Last line of “Fiasco”: McManus says that the lesson of Iran-contra is that it’s impossible to limit a modern president.

The author, Neyfakh, has suggested that people may take comfort in his descriptions of political catastrophes that have and have not. Even if the survival of the American political system is not the message of “Fiasco,” the message of Americans’ eagerness or even willingness to disregard anything when they believe it presents no threat to their safety or way of life may be. Every time there is a scandal, fear will always win out.