"Another win for the home team."
That was Bill O'Reilly's message to the creative gang behind the National Geographic film based on his best-selling book KILLING REAGAN. The movie examines the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr. on March 30, 1981. Bill had a few notes, some suggestions, but was clearly jazzed -- especially by the performances of Tim Matheson as Ronnie and Cynthia Nixon as Nancy.
Now, of course I was happy with Bill's reaction. He is, after all, also an executive producer on the movie.
But ... but ... it never struck me that a prototypical O'Reilly "liberal pinhead" like me could be on his "home team." (And, I'm not. I promise.)
So, how can a McGovern-loving Hollywood leftie make a movie about Ronald Reagan without taking out his flamethrower? In fact, if Eric Simonson's screenplay were to be faithfully adapted, it would paint Reagan in a fairly positive light. How could I do this and not be forced to turn in my ACLU card?
I'd like to say Donald Trump was the answer.
After all, this would be an opportunity to show the Republicans how far they had collapsed since the Gipper was running things. If nothing else, Reagan had dignity, he had style (Reagan would never have worn one of those China-made Trump suits), he had sincerity, he didn't pander and, in his lowest moment (Iran-Contra) he admitted blame and apologized. Trump is the opposite of everything Reagan was. (Especially the hair. Reagan had much better hair. When doctors removed the bullet from his chest they noted that his hair was naturally brown.) If Reagan was the creme de la creme of the GOP, Trump is the arsenic.
But that wasn't really what motivated me.
No, the reason I made KILLING REAGAN was the remarkable story.
A true one. (Up until now, everything I had done had been more or less fictional).
Furthermore, it is one of the few political stories that was nonpartisan. The whole thing is so damn fascinating that it didn't need a political point of view. The story propels absolutely everything -- everything: Hinckley's crazy obsession over Jodie Foster, Reagan's struggle to get a foothold in Washington, four people getting shot along with POTUS, Reagan near death (nearer than anybody knew), Alexander Haig trying to assume presidential duties, the medical heroics, James Brady's life being torn apart, Nancy taking control of her husband's life.
(It should be noted that we adapted only part of O'Reilly's book -- it just has way too much stuff in it to fit into a hundred-minute film).
Does Reagan come off looking good? Well, yes. The guy took a bullet and then proceeded to calm the nation with his heroic behavior in the hospital while everybody was losing their shit in the situation room -- Al Haig especially -- and in the waiting rooms, Reagan kept his composure. "Honey, I forgot to duck," he said to Nancy right before the surgery. About 12 hours after the operation, Reagan even signed a dairy bill (which gutted subsidies to farmers -- but this isn't the time to dissect that).
But KILLING REAGAN is also the character study of both Ronald Reagan and John Hinckley.
In a way, both Reagan and Hinckley were living in movies of their own creation. Up until the assassination attempt, Reagan had existed in a highly scripted world -- with several men (Michael Deaver, Ed Meese and James Baker) and Nancy as his directors. Note cards of what to say, for example, accompanied every phone call he made.
Hinckley thought he was living "Taxi Driver." He was the star. Jodie was the co-star. When he checked into his Washington, D.C. motel before the assassination attempt, he registered as John Travis. He drank peach brandy like Bickle. He was going to impress his "co-star" by shooting a political figure as was contemplated in the Scorsese film.
The assassination attempt eventually snapped both into the real world.
For Hinckley that manifested in an obvious way. He was put in a mental hospital and finally released (a few weeks ago) when he was considered no longer a danger to himself or others.
Reagan went through the whole "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" thing after the shooting. Surviving the bullet made him more religious. He stated that he had thought God had spared him for a reason. He drifted away from following the advice of his team and started having more faith in his own decisions. One of the first things he did when he got home from the hospital was write a personal note to Leonoid Brezhnev -- asking that the two of them personally tackle detente. (Nancy, by the way, totally lost her nerve. She hired an astrologer to warn her of what her husband's bad days were going to be and put his schedule on her own leash.)
That's good stuff. It's involving and meaningful and what movies should be.
He may not have been a good actor, and I personally don't think he was a good president, but, I'll tell you this: Ronald Reagan was a helluva character.
KILLING REAGAN premieres Sunday, Oct. 16, on the National Geographic Channel.