There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through Killing Reagan (airing on National Geographic Channel Sunday, October 16), where the injured president asks for the name and motivation of the man who shot him. When told that John Hinckley, Jr. appeared to be just some crazy, mixed-up kid, Reagan meditates momentarily on that fact and says that he will pray for the young man.
That moment, perfectly delivered by Tim Matheson as Reagan, probably did more to humanize the conservative icon than scores of pundit books or fawning eulogies ever could. I am not a participant in the cult of Reagan, and the film’s regurgitation of the events leading to his election and shooting aren’t likely to change anyone’s mind about the president’s politics. The film does, however, present Ronald and Nancy Reagan as sincere and decent people whatever their ideological assumptions might be.
Whether the warm, fuzzy portrayals will be enough to appease those viewers whose attitudes about the Reagans are more polarized is not clear. It seems doubtful. The film hints that the post-assassination attempt Reagan was in some obscure way incapacitated. A doctor warns Nancy that his recovery will be long and difficult, a subsequent scene shows her and the staff altering meetings based on the advice of an astrologer, and two pieces of found footage that cap the film are (perhaps coincidentally) about memory loss. In one, Reagan admits that the evidence regarding Iran-Contra is contrary to what he believes in his heart happened and is seemingly befuddled by how the arms for hostages deal happened. In the other, he speaks of his post-presidential diagnosis of Alzheimers. That’s a pretty mushy insinuation; are dementia and trauma even correlated in that way?
But if the whispering and gossiping about Reagan’s possible incapacity are likely to anger conservatives, the disinterest in Reagan’s policies while president may frustrate his political antagonists. One could argue that the film is about the assassination attempt — it is called Killing Reagan, after all — and not the presidency, but the script spends a significant portion on Reagan’s debate with Jimmy Carter and his post-recovery presidency. It’s as if writers Bill O’Reilly and Eric Simonson acknowledge there simply isn’t enough new or revealing material about this one event to fill a whole movie.
Killing Reagan is not great art and it certainly isn’t great politics. But in an election year that seemingly reveals America is more polarized than ever before, there is some cultural value in its ability to humanize a controversial figure. I doubt any amount of revisionist history would ever get me to thank God that Ronald Reagan was president. Yet I can still recognize his basic humanity and affirm that he appeared to serve the same God I affirm with the light he had available to him. In at least one way — the ability to pray for someone who injured him — he can still act as a role model for how we can all, whatever our political persuasions, strive to be better human beings.