Based on Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's bestseller about John Hinckley Jr.'s attempt on Ronald Reagan's life in 1981, Killing Reagan has a fine First Couple
Credit: National Geographic Channels/ Hopper Stone, SMPSP

Based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestseller about John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981, Killing Reagan has a fine First Couple.

Tim Matheson captures the essence of the Reagan persona — a born performer whose public and private selves were so in sync, perhaps even happily, that they became indistinguishable.

After making an important decision, the President pops candy into his mouth and smiles with satisfaction. This, one imagines, is a man whose every gesture is a recapitulation of some moment he once played on camera or witnessed in an old movie. Somehow this endless, unconscious refraction of Hollywood history is his authenticity. Reagan was a Spielbergian president.

When that Reagan briefly disappears, wounded by Hinckley and disoriented after surgery, there’s a special pathos: Nurses warn him that he’ll have to be restrained in his hospital bed if he doesn’t calm down, and he scribbles on a note on a yellow pad: “Am I still alive?” This is not the same man who, just a few hours before, pluckily joked to his wife: “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

Cynthia Nixon’s Nancy is rather pointedly lacking in depth: Introducing the topic of consulting a psychic about the White House schedule, she tells her convalescing husband, “I was talking to Merv Griffin on the phone. . .” But her devotion is fathomless and touching.

And, considering the destruction wrought by Hinckley for no remotely rational cause, Nancy may have had a point placing her trust in the stars and Merv Griffin.

(National Geographic, Oct. 16, 8 p.m.)