‘Killing Reagan’: A Civilized TV Take on Bill O’Reilly’s Book

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

It may seem odd to call the atmosphere of a TV movie about the attempted assassination of a president “civilized.” But one of the timely contrasts made by Killing Reagan, premiering Sunday on the National Geographic Channel, is that the political context surrounding the shooting of Ronald Reagan in 1981 seems downright dignified compared with our present, wild, nearly out-of-control election.

Framing the shooting of the president by John Hinckley Jr. are scenes of Reagan (Tim Matheson) appearing in debates, tussling with his advisers over how to deal with Russia, and other duties of the office. The arguments — the policy differences between the Republicans and the Democrats — are sometimes rancorous, but nowhere near the present level of gridlocked animosity.

Directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender) and based on the Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard book of the same name, Killing Reagan features fine performances by Matheson and Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon as Nancy Reagan. Neither attempts an out-and-out impersonation of those historical figures; Matheson limits himself to a well-measured huskiness of voice. But in their bearing and (in the case of Matheson) some subtle makeup, the actors capture much of the public images of this devoted-to-each-other couple.

The best moments are the quiet little conversations between Ron and Nancy. Matheson and Nixon are convincing as a close couple united by true love as well as common goals and ambitions. The film, and Nixon, are especially good at depicting Nancy’s fierce protectiveness toward her husband, and her boldness in confronting Reagan cabinet members she believed were undermining Ronnie’s best instincts and qualities.

The TV movie, with a script by Eric Simonson, also spends a big chunk of time with Hinckley, played by Kyle S. More. He’s presented as a morose, extremely shy and self-conscious individual, wrapped up in obsessions with guns, Jodie Foster, and Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character in Taxi Driver. In all this, More does a good job of communicating Hinckley’s walled-off interior life.

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Perhaps the most interesting stuff is the movie’s depiction of the confusion that occurred immediately after the shooting. Killing Reagan suggests that it took a while to establish that the president was hit by Hinckley’s bullets, and there are both dramatized and real news-footage reactions to the shooting in which initially false reports are corrected on the air by anchors such as ABC’s Frank Reynolds and Ted Koppel.

I haven’t read the source book by O’Reilly and Dugard, but I have to figure it’s more briskly paced than this movie, which does drag at the beginning and the end. The middle material, however, dramatizing the assassination attempt and its aftermath, is engrossing.

Killing Reagan airs Sunday, Oct. 16, at 8 p.m. ET on National Geographic Channel.