'Killing Reagan': TV Review

Killing Reagan - Tim Matheson - Cynthia Nixon  Still - H - 2016
National Geographic Channels/Hopper Stone
Still not good, but better than 'Lincoln,' 'Kennedy' or 'Jesus.'

Boosted by OK performances from Tim Matheson and Cynthia Nixon, NatGeo's latest Bill O'Reilly adaptation may be a 'Killing' peak.

Having successfully killed all of the people in history who were actually killed — the list begins and ends with Lincoln, JFK and Jesus, apparently — Bill O'Reilly turned the attentions of his inexplicably successful factoid franchise to people who weren't really killed, starting with Ronald Reagan.

The non-assassination of the B-movie star, conservative icon and our 40th president has now become the fourth of Reilly's books to be transferred to the small screen by National Geographic, a process that began with the misguided mixture of corny reenactments, talking heads and narration that was Killing Lincoln in 2013. The franchise — yes, Bill O'Reilly and NatGeo have franchised the killing of celebrities — reaches something of a low-level peak with Killing Reagan, premiering Sunday.

Elevated by the steady direction of Rod Lurie, Killing Reagan is the closest one of these Killing adaptations has come to feeling like a cohesive movie, even if it doesn't exactly know where to begin and runs out of energy in the aftermath of Reagan's recovery from a killing that didn't occur. In the middle, there's a decently tense and chaotic chronicling of the events of March 30, 1981, even if it's less insightful and less in-depth than the already unremarkable 2001 telefilm The Day Reagan Was Shot.

Starting in the waning days of the 1980 presidential campaign, Eric Simonson's script follows the template set by previous adaptations of O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's books. Reagan (Tim Matheson) and John Hinckley (Kyle S. More) are set up on parallel tracks. Reagan is still trying to pull ahead of Jimmy Carter and facing a choice about a pending debate, while Hinckley is struggling to find any purpose in his life and looking for ways to impress Jodie Foster and make a name for himself.

All too slowly, Killing Reagan takes Reagan into the White House and surrounds him with tightly wound advisors and subordinates, as well as the loving support of wife Nancy (Cynthia Nixon), at the same time rendering Hinckley more and more isolated as one person after another ignores warning signs and pushes him towards his dark destiny.

The depiction of the day of Hinckley's assassination attempt has no real style and it never pretends that you're supposed to be in suspense about anything that happens to Reagan — James Brady deserves better than he gets here and I'm not sure that Tim McCarthy and Thomas Delahanty are even named — but the whip-around between Reagan in the emergency room and on the operating table, a cool-headed Jim Baker (Geoff Pierson) and the manic, power-grabbing Alexander Haig (Patrick St. Esprit) conveys the madness of that day.

O'Reilly and Dugard's book drew most of its publicity from the claims it made about Reagan's diminished condition after the shooting; the movie soft-peddles their theories, and I'm not sure what takeaway it really hopes viewers get from post-shooting Reagan other than that he had new religious determination and Nancy started consulting an astrologer. If you subscribe to the notion that for good or ill the assassination attempt was integral to what ended up being the majority of his presidency, Killing Reagan isn't enlightening.

The movie also was finished before Hinckley's September release from psychiatric care and thus has nothing to say about his institutional life and how he came to be freed. Just as Killing Reagan is notable because the named party wasn't killed, it's also notable because though John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald were killed within weeks of their crimes and the killing of Jesus wasn't perpetrated by a single party, Hinckley attempted to kill a president and hasn't just lived, he's outlived many or most of that day's key figures. When you look at our history's assassins and attempted assassins, that's an anomaly. Or at least that seems notable to me.

Just as Killing Reagan won't be controversial for its revelations (or lack thereof) about the time in question, the key performances won't cause controversy, either, which is party of why Killing Reagan hasn't faced the ostracism that greeted CBS and then Showtime's The Reagans back in 2003. Matheson avoids that Reagan impression that everybody used to do back in the '80s and plays him as committed, passionate and politically capable, if a slight dim bulb on actual policy wonkiness. There are no easy laughs at this Reagan's expense, no jelly beans, but there's also nothing ideological. Nixon also does no editorializing and plays Nancy as determined and devoted. The love between Ronald and Nancy is probably the only thing you'll leave Killing Reagan sure of, which may not satisfy viewers looking for hagiography or iconoclasm, but also probably won't piss off viewers looking for hagiography or iconoclasm. These movies don't aim for passion.

More, whose background is in improv comedy, has more empathy for Hinckley than you might expect, making him sad and compulsively driven, rather than just pathetic or unhinged. 

Pierson and St. Esprit give the other two performances that stand out, but there isn't enough room for anybody else to play a character or have any fun here, which is too bad since there were plenty of larger-than-life personalities in that Reagan cabinet. "Fun" isn't really the goal of these Killing movies, but especially now that we've moved on to people who weren't killed and fewer sensitivities are required, you'd think it could become part of the goal.

In took three years and four movies for NatGeo to evolve the Killing movies into something I'd now describe as "verging on competent," so maybe for 2019's Killing William Henry Harrison — it was the part Harry Dean Stanton was born to play 20 years ago — we can hope for a genuinely entertaining treatment of pneumonia.

Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic Channel)