It’s uncanny timing that National Geographic’s new TV film, “Killing Reagan,” based on the popular book by Bill O’Reilly that examines the events surrounding the attempted assassination of President Reagan, is being premiered almost within 30 days of the release of John Hinckley Jr., the man who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Hinckley was released on Sept. 10, 2016 after being kept over three decades in a mental institution. The timing makes this film, a fascinating flashback into the early eighties–and a riveting dive into the psyche of a troubled soul–even more compelling.
“Killing Reagan,” starring Tim Matheson (“The West Wing”), Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”), and Kyle S. More (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), is one of the best installments in NatGeo’s “Killing” series. I’ll get to why in a moment, but before we go any further, if you haven’t read my reviews before here is how my unorthodox structure works:
- If the movie is good, I talk about why.
- I dive into the worldview and deeper layers to explore what this film is saying. I sometimes veer off into related topics.
- I talk about how to “apply” the movie. I believe movies are meant for more than just disposable consumption, but they’re things we can take with us to make our lives better.
You might say this style of film review is based loosely on the inductive method of study: observe, interpret, and apply.
(Observations) Entertainment Value and Film Craft
“Killing Reagan,” first and foremost, features world-class performances that make it a must-see. Tim Matheson nails the voice of Ronald Reagan. He conveys it not as impersonator but as inhabiter of the character–a tender, warm-hearted, and sometimes fiery inhabitation of Reagan. Those of us old enough to remember Reagan are reminded why the gracious but bold and independent-minded president was so likable and why he won his elections handily. Cynthia Nixon as Nancy Reagan gives us Nancy as we always suspected she was away from the cameras: caring, fiercely protective of her “Ronnie,” and brave. Kyle S. More brings us convincingly and even sympathetically into the mind of a deeply troubled youth whose obsession with the film “Taxi Driver,” fame, and, above all, actress Jodie Foster, lured him into a detached reality that produced one of the most shocking events in American political history. His performance was both heartbreaking and terrifying–the exact emotions that the American public felt about the actions of the young man. Even Reagan himself expressed those sentiments when he said from his hospital room that he would pray for Hinckley.
Besides the wonderful performances, the pacing of the film is crisp and nimble, and there’s never a lagging moment or a scene that felt bloated and unnecessary. It moved with lean energy through all of the little (and big) events in Reagan’s political sphere and in Hinckley’s personal life that eventually added up to the fateful collision between the two worlds.
(Interpretation) Worldviews and Deeper Layers of Meaning–And May God Have Mercy On Our Nation for Our Foolishness:
The underlying layers of “Killing Reagan” is fairly straight forward: bring history to life in an intriguing, educational, and immersive way that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. It might be worth to note that the film treats the Reagans with great respect and affection, and the closing minutes of the film serve almost as a brief tribute and nostalgic reminiscing of Ronald Reagan’s remarkable, history-changing presidency. The film doesn’t ignore some of Reagan’s mistakes, but it treats him fairly and highlights some of his most worthy virtues that made him so beloved. There are no ugly cheap shots politically in this film, in other words. No one subverts the story to try to make a point about today’s politics. It is a very refreshing film in that sense, and it is ironic: it is all about politics and government, but it is completely lacking in any of today’s underhanded rancor or militant partisanship that so often comes to us from Hollywood or anyone with a media platform. I’m talking about when a film suddenly becomes a commercial for a particular political point of view. None of that happens here–at least not to the extent that many other films have gone. Of course, it’s based on a Bill O’Reilly book so obviously the film isn’t coming from the heart of liberalism. But it really does stay focused on telling the story and remaining true to history. Not only was it extremely well-researched–using the actual words that people said during those events, even down to the joke Reagan told the surgeon before going under–but the film also features a surprising amount of actual television footage from that era. This makes the film even more immersive and documentary-like. It becomes an irresistible time machine.
In light of today’s nightmarish presidential election, I can’t resist saying this about the film: it became a two-edged sword. Yes, it was refreshing to see on-screen the stand-out classiness, dignity, off-the-cuff wittiness, humor, and warm-heartedness of Ronald and Nancy Reagan–qualities that everyone will admit they had whether or not one agrees with their politics. That was refreshing, yes, but it also filled my heart with a sharp grief. As I watched, I saw in vivid, reenacted detail how Reagan conducted himself, and then I turned and beheld today’s presidential election. I wanted to weep. Is this what our country has become? How tragic. How moronically, needlessly tragic. May God have mercy on us for our self-centered, stubborn foolishness.
Enough with the Misuse of Jesus’ Name Already
One point of complaint from a Christian point of view: there was a seemingly relentless misuse of Jesus’ name in the dialogue. I honestly got sick of the “super intense” governmental figures hunkering down in the “Situation Room” during scenes of great governmental crisis, yelling the phrase “Jesus H. Christ” every time something bad happened. What a tired, offensive cliche. Hollywood is so careful about not using offensive trigger words for other people groups. Yet in screenplays they don’t hesitate to carelessly toss in what Christians believe to be blasphemy and deeply offensive. Misusing the name of Christ is one of the deepest signs of disrespect for a Christian’s beliefs–at least from a Christian’s point of view. And for some reason in Hollywood–not just in this film, but in many political thrillers I’ve seen–stern, loud-mouthed government officials bearing the fate of the world on their shoulders are always shouting out “Jesus Christ!” as a swear word. That cliche needs to go. Is that really crucial to the story? Will it ruin the screenplay’s delicately crafted subtext if we ditch that tired stereotype of the supposed “grittiness” of powerful government officials?
Conclusion (and Application): A Refreshing, Thrilling Time Machine and Reminder of the Preciousness of Human Dignity
“Killing Reagan,” not counting the excessive misuse of Jesus’ name, was a superb political thriller and a deeply moving portrait of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Its greatest intrigue, however, was the revealing of John Hinckley Jr.’s backstory. The film takes you behind the curtains to see what drove Hinckley to his shocking assassination attempt.
The film also reminds us how precious human dignity is. We see the inspiring dignity of the Reagans, whether or not we are “on their side” politically, and makes us want to live with that kind of oak-like strength and stability. On the other side, we see the frightening fragility of the mind, and we see how mental illness can strip a person of their dignity, as Hinckley’s illness did to him in a tragic way–not just for him but for his family and for the victims of his shooting and the victims’ families.
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Content advisory for this film…
Note: This is a film for TV with no official rating. The parental guidance content advisory is written from a Christian worldview. I am a person of faith with orthodox Christian beliefs like those expressed in “The Everlasting Man” by G. K. Chesterton, “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis, and “The Pursuit of God” by A. W. Tozer. That being said, I do not believe that the depiction of evil, even graphic depictions of evil or negative themes in films, is in itself always immoral. I believe it depends on the context and the worldview behind the film’s depiction of evil. All that being said, I try to report the content that gives the film its rating so that you can make an informed decision about viewing the film. Some people need to know detailed information about the content, some do not, in order to make a decision. I try to provide enough detail to give you a sense of the nature of the content. If you need more detail to make a better decision, I recommend visiting PluggedIn.com, as they provide extremely detailed reports of a movie’s content.
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality: A character visits a prostitute. No sex is shown.
Violence/Gore/Scary/Disturbing Content: Several people are shot, and one man is seen getting shot point-blank in the head.
Language: Use of Jesus’ name in vain several times, b-word, h-word, d-word.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Characters drink alcoholic drinks and smoke in some scenes.