“Killing Reagan” fastidiously adheres to the same formula as Bill O’Reilly’s other books that became high-rated National Geographic Channel movies — and largely seeks to skirt the controversy that the print version unleashed.
Even so, this latest adaptation from the Fox News host and co-author Martin Dugard — more a dramatic recreation, in reality-TV parlance, than a fully framed drama — seemingly violates the unwritten 11th Commandment of TV movies: “Thou Shalt Not Mess With the Memory of Ronald Reagan.”
Indeed, even the largely respectful, paint-by-numbers approach probably won’t completely steer clear of the minefield through which the book treaded. CBS learned that the hard way in 2003, when “The Reagans,” a mostly benign miniseries devoted to the couple, caused such a stir that the network backed out of airing it, shifting the project to pay channel Showtime.
O’Reilly and Dugard’s book raised the hackles of Reagan loyalists with their implication that the 40th President was never the same after surviving a 1981 assassination attempt — unlike Lincoln, Kennedy and Jesus, past “Killing” subjects.
Admirers and associates took strong exception to the portrait of Reagan as a hollowed-out version of himself, which triggered columns denouncing the book and an on-air shouting match between O’Reilly and Fox News commentator George Will.
Directed by Rod Lurie, “Killing Reagan” sidesteps much of that by dwelling sparingly on the shooting’s aftermath, other than an observation by Nancy Reagan (played by “Sex and the City’s” Cynthia Nixon) that Reagan has “changed,” and a doctor’s warning that the trauma will require a long recovery.
Instead, the movie is a standard tick-tock of events leading to the shooting and the chaos that ensued, giving equal time to John Hinckley Jr. (Kyle S. More), the disturbed young man motivated by his obsession with actress Jodie Foster and the movie “Taxi Driver.”
“Killing Reagan” opens by shifting between Hinckley’s psychological descent and the late stages of the 1980 presidential campaign — when Reagan (Tim Matheson, doing a homespun “Aw shucks” version of him) was still in danger of losing.
After that, “Killing Reagan” alternately devotes its energy to Hinckley’s madness and Reagan administration palace intrigue and intramural squabbling. That included James Baker (Geoff Pierson) emerging as a cool head in the shooting’s wake, Secretary of State Alexander Haig (Patrick St. Esprit) famously proclaiming he was in charge, and a frantic Nancy insisting on being at her husband’s side as doctors labored to save him.
The most likely source of irritation in the movie is pretty well documented — how Nancy’s concern about Reagan led her to consult an astrologer in planning White House schedules, one of the less-flattering revelations about her influence.
Other than that, Lurie’s treatment replicating these events is too dutiful to be particularly galling — or interesting. The division of time between Reagan and Hinckley also blunts the drama, giving the actors little means of registering beyond physical resemblance to their real-life counterparts.
The “Killing” movies have been ratings winners for NatGeo, which has already ordered another based on “Killing Patton.” That’s in part thanks to O’Reilly using his Fox platform to help promote them.
With Reagan, though — such a beloved and hallowed figure in conservative circles — those who dare tackle that legacy, even in a manner this bland, should be braced for some blowback.
“Killing Reagan” premieres October 16 at 8 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.