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No, "Turmoil & Triumph" isn't another series about Winston Churchill, that title notwithstanding. The three-part documentary (airs consecutive Mondays beginning July 12, 10-11 p.m. EDT, on PBS; check local listings) concerns a less historic figure—namely, George Shultz. The turmoil and triumph in question are those of the years in which he served as secretary of state—and by the time this astonishingly dramatic miniseries has come to its end, with the final episode's play-by-play account of the Reagan-Gorbachev face-off over nuclear disarmament and Star Wars, and the drive toward an end to the Cold War, a powerful case has been made for Mr. Shultz as one of the most significant statesmen in American history.

Ronald Reagan and George Shultz
- Hoover Institution/PBS

The filmmakers (David deVries and Thomas Skinner) aren't shy about their perspective, and neither are the members of the star-studded cast of commentators—Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Sam Nunn, Richard Reeves and historian Walter LaFeber, to name a few—who appear as character witnesses. And the film is nothing if not about character. Its narrative focuses unstintingly on the manner of man who became Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, and on the character-driven choices made evident during those crucial years of service.

In the fateful 1986 Iceland summit on nuclear-arms reduction, agreements had moved forward promisingly but for the issue of the U.S. Space Defense Initiative—i.e., Star Wars—which Mr. Gorbachev decreed intolerable and which President Reagan would not consider giving up. The atmosphere—evoked in riveting detail supplied by some of those present—is a mix of bitterness and despair; the two leaders had by now developed a bond of sorts, and a sense of hope for future amity. Mr. Gorbachev said he would in two minutes agree to destroy all nuclear weapons, if only the Americans would yield on Star Wars. But the American president would not and could not—which didn't prevent him from passing a note to Secretary Shultz that asked, "Am I wrong?" It was in character for this secretary of state to grasp that for President Reagan there really was no question. "No, you are right," he told the president. No one left the summit happy. "I don't know what more I could have done," said the depressed Mr. Gorbachev as they parted. "You could have said 'yes,'" President Reagan informed him.

Despite the impasse, enough ice had been broken at Reykjavik to ensure that all was far from lost on the arms-agreement front, or, for that matter, on hopes for ending the Cold War. The secretary of state undertook travels that would lead to another summit. There would be crucial conversations, including something on the order of a seminar that Mr. Shultz, an economist by training, delivered to Soviet leaders desperate over the economic conditions confronting them at home. Mr. LaFeber reports: "Shultz brought in some pie charts and put them in front and delivered a lecture as a business-school dean to the leader of the Soviet Union." Mr. Shultz had in fact been dean of a business school. As he recalls, he had told the Soviets that a new age had come—the age of information—a kind in which they could never thrive if they continued as "a closed and compartmented society."

Mr. Gorbachev was a willing listener, and, it would appear, a grateful one. Of the film's commentators—an exceptionally enthusiastic lot even by the prevailing standards for testimonials of this sort—no one exudes more intensity of feeling than this former head of the Soviet Union describing his regard for Mr. Shultz. Merely to look at him now is to be flooded with memories of the Reagan years and all that they encompassed. Mr. Gorbachev's arrival on the scene was its own drama. In comparison to his predecessors, he was a rock star. Educated, worldly, open to the possibilities of political change, he was like no other Soviet leader the Americans—the world—had ever seen.

Neither had they seen—not for decades, at any rate—a president like Ronald Reagan. The insider's view of that presidency is, in the end, one of the more irresistible aspects of this film. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, usually at odds with Mr. Shultz, was dead set against things like summits with the Soviets—he feared, a commentator notes, that President Reagan would give away the store. The secretary of state was determined that such meetings should take place, and that they should succeed. Encountering intolerable levels of in-house opposition, Mr. Shultz finally tendered his resignation, which the president refused to consider.

There was no shortage of calamities requiring the secretary of state's—and the president's—attention in the 1980s. They included a civil war in Lebanon, Soviet nuclear missiles targeted at Western Europe, the barracks terror bombing that killed 241 Marines in Beirut. It was a time of stellar American leadership, and most of the world knew it. This film, on one of the most conspicuous of those leaders, vividly captures this period—one that seems today, for the aforementioned reason, like life on another planet.

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