Depicting Ronald Reagan on film is a notoriously hazardous enterprise. Think back to CBS ditching their drama The Reagans in 2003 or Will Ferrell pulling out of a comedy last April about The Gipper’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The latest attempt is Killing Reagan, a TV movie adaptation of the 2015 bestseller co-written by Fox News Anchor Bill O’Reilly. The movie, which stars Tim Matheson as President Reagan and Cynthia Nixon as First Lady Nancy Reagan, recounts the failed attempt by John Hinckley Jr. to assassinate the President in 1981.
The omens for Killing Reagan, which airs Sunday on the National Geographic Channel, are promising. For one thing, it avoids the more contentious aspects of O’Reilly’s book, which riled many Reagan loyalists with its thesis that the shooting affected Reagan’s mental capacity for the rest of his time in office and might have facilitated the Alzheimer’s Disease with which he was subsequently diagnosed.
It’s directed by Rod Lurie who made two of the finest political films in modern movie history, The Contender and (the criminally underseen) Nothing But the Truth. Heat Street spoke with Lurie about Killing Reagan and Republicans in Hollywood and in office.
Anyone who is your friend on Facebook knows you are avowedly liberal. How did you end up directing Killing Reagan?
I got a phone call from my agent saying to me, ‘Hey! You want to do a Bill O’Reilly book, Killing Reagan? The notion of doing work for conservatives was anathema to me. I wanted to fire my agent and say to him, ‘You don’t know me, do you?’ But then I read the script and I read the book and O’Reilly took a non-partisan approach. It’s a tick-tock of what happened in this attempted assassination on Reagan. No political positions are taken although I do say that Reagan, during this time, behaved like a real man. He was really impressive. He was shot and he walked into the hospital and he’s making jokes while he’s got a bullet inside of him…
The movie is being released at an interesting time in US politics.
A few months ago, Donald Trump was up on a stage and the Secret Service jumped up on the stage because somebody might have been trying to get up there. I thought that Trump was gonna faint, he was so scared and he behaved like a little girl. You contrast that with Reagan — it’s non-comparable. Reagan had so much dignity when he had a bullet in him and his only thought was how to comfort the nation to make sure the president is OK or think he’s OK. Trump completely crumbled up there. These days because of Trump, even Democrats are nostalgic for Ronald Reagan.
Trump definitely has been good for our movie because it heightens people’s admiration of Ronald Reagan. I thought he [Reagan] was a terrible President, to be honest with you!
Why did you think that?
I thought he did alot of damage to the country but I do admire the way that he moved and I liked his style. I liked his leadership and his Presidentiality and that’s something you’ll definitely get from this movie. He was a very likable person. He knew how to comfort the nation. He was a guy that appealed to the best of us whereas someone like Trump appeals to the worst. I can stand on principle and be a flame-thrower against Ronald Reagan but it’s not deserving, not in the case of this film or this incident. In order to be successful you have to make a film for everybody, not just a specific sector or demographic of the population.
We didn’t need to be partisan and I think we’ve succeeded. I think so much of what Reagan did was destructive but that’s not what this story is. I’m very happy to tell a story that shows the very positive elements of somebody’s character in this situation. I’m a Liberal winning one for the Gipper and it’s appropriate in this case.
The book aroused quite a strong reaction among Reagan loyalists? Do you see the film replicating the controversy?
The controversy of the O’Reilly book was the suggestion that the Alzheimers began much earlier than has been reported. We don’t deal with that because the book carries over such a broad range of time that we decided that since we had only a 100 minutes to limit it to the couple of months before and after the assassination attempt. We’re more like The Day of the Jackal where we examine the trajectory of the assassin and the trajectory of the target. We stay away from that level of controversy. The film is a thriller- we know that John Hinckley is going to take his shot at Reagan but we don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen.
Do you go into the disputed meetings over President Reagan’s health during his second term that Bill O’Reilly covered in the book?
The 25th amendment [which states that the president may be removed if he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”] is brought up but while they’re in the hospital. The one that’s in the O’Reilly book isn’t in the movie. But what is true is that during the time at the hospital had to decide whether to officially transfer power over to George H.W. Bush and they somewhat controversially did not do that. Now, if the President is out for an hour and a half to get a colon cancer screening, they will temporarily pass over Presidential power to the Vice-President. But back then in the situation room Al Haig was doing some major power grabbing and declared himself being in control of the White House while Reagan was going under. Reagan was within one minute of being dead. Thank goodness they brought him to the hospital in the nick of time.
Does Bill O’Reilly like the movie?
He liked the movie very much and he wrote us all a letter saying, ‘Another win for the home team.’ I had to write to everybody and say, ‘We all have to have unity on this. We are not on the Bill O’Reilly home team!’ If my wife, who is a Jewish black woman from San Francisco, sees I’m on the Bill O’Reilly home team, I may as well become a eunuch!
There’s this stereotypical notion that Hollywood is overwhelmingly populated by liberals.
It’s true. We are definitely stridently liberal.
Do you think many Republicans in the movie business keep their affiliations quiet?
Many of those who are Republicans do keep it as quiet as they possibly can. Those that have been really overt I have seen them get a little bit hurt in their careers, especially if they go super flaming Republican. I personally would not deny them a job but I think that many of them have been denied work. James Woods — who I have worked with and who is a great actor — and Jon Voight do Ray Donovan but that’s about it. Gary Sinise might have been affected by it. If you look at the careers of people who have been extraordinarily loud in their conservatism, they’re not working as much as they used to.