If I can say one thing about Bill O’Reilly (and I can say a lot, believe me), I’ll give him credit where credit is due. For having such a strange obsession as picking apart presidential assassinations (and assassination attempts), he sure knows how to craft a thrilling narrative around historical events that you think you already know. Killing Reagan is no exception.
We follow the Reagans, Ronald (Tim Matheson) and Nancy (Cynthia Nixon), from the month leading up to his election in 1980, to a few weeks after the assassination attempt by John Hinkley, Jr. (Kyle S. More), a mere 69 days into his first term (can you imagine?). Reagan’s handlers know his strengths (a charmer that knows how to work a crowd) as they are learning his weaknesses (which usually means Nancy is telling off a member of Ronnie’s staff after he leaves the room). Ron and Nancy were certainly a power team, and Killing Reagan shows her influence in the Oval Office, without ever making Ronald look weak or bullied (despite apparent attempts by some of his power-hungry administration).
In contrast to the Reagans getting settled in the White House, Killing Reagan also introduces us to an odd young man from Colorado named John Hinkley, who was already getting himself into trouble with the Feds before Reagan even won. Later found not guilty for reasons of insanity, it is clear, at least as portrayed in this film, that Hinkley was definitely troubled. We see his obsession with Jodie Foster, the distress of his parents at his lack of initiative to get a job, and his downward spiral of mental illness. Let me just say, actor Kyle More is a spitting image of Hinkley, and his performance is riveting. You know exactly what he is going to do, yet still you can’t look away as his plans unfold.
The extras on the DVD explain the passion behind the film, in getting the details just right. The actual shooting is recreated to the finest minutiae (we are all familiar with the film footage), but the hospital scenes following the shooting are jarring and scary in their intensity, also acknowledging the vulnerability (and humanity) of the 70-year-old president.
The “Killing” series of films aren’t really meant to explain what happened before or after these nation-shaking events, and they don’t pretend to be. By focusing just on an assassin and his intended victim, the stories manage to focus sharply on history, bringing new light on events that we thought we knew.