The filmmaker Rod Lurie has a gift for creating memorable presidents. First there was Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak) in Deterrence (1999), trapped in a Colorado diner during a freak snowstorm as a nuclear crisis unfolds in the Middle East. Then there was Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)—Barack Obama’s favorite movie president—whose complex blend of the folksy and the cunning is worthy of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Finally there was Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in the TV series Commander in Chief (2005-06), a Connecticut feminist who helped America get comfortable with the salutation “Madam President” (even if certain critics charged Lurie with seeding the ground for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign).
That’s a lot of presidents for one writer-director. The excuse, if there needs to be one, is that Lurie has a bone-deep fascination for political intrigue, for the uneasy dance between power and morality. This I know firsthand. I met Rod at Parkway School circa 1972, when he was the exotic new kid, having come all the way from Israel (with brief stops in Scarsdale and Stamford). We bonded over the fact that our fathers shared an oddball profession—they were cartoonists—though mine did comic strips and his did political cartoons for Life and Newsweek. Many a weekend Rod and I would bother Ranan Lurie in his studio as he toiled away at his famously big-headed, small-bodied caricatures; sometimes he would stop mid-cross-hatch to patiently explain what Nixon or Kissinger or Mao had done that week to earn his ridicule. (Rod’s mother is Tamar Lurie, one of the nation’s top-selling real estate agents, based at Coldwell Banker in Greenwich.)
At the same time, America was lurching through the toxic fog of Vietnam and Watergate. Where Vietnam was all grim confusion, Watergate unraveled as a naked, if mesmerizing, farce—at least to a perceptive child like Rod, who had a visceral dislike of Nixon that soon extended to his comic-villain henchmen. Other formative ingredients I recall were Rod’s way-beyond-average passion for movies (Ben Hur was his early favorite) and Sherlock Holmes stories. Rod’s personal fixations and the crazy times dovetailed magnificently in Alan J. Pakula’s Watergate drama All the President’s Men (1976), a new breed of film that turned a laborious journalistic investigation into a detective thriller with huge stakes and genuine moral gravitas.
“I saw it on April 10, 1976, at the Trans-Lux Cinema in Stamford,” Rod says with telling precision. He saw it again the next day. “I realized I was in the presence of maybe the best film I’d ever seen, at that young age. And it remains the best movie that I’ve ever seen.”
He can tell you a million reasons why, beginning with William Goldman’s screenplay, Robert Redford’s performance as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman’s as Bernstein, and continuing with numerous invisibly brilliant directorial touches, like the opening sequence in which typewriter keys strike the blank page of the screen like gunshots, pointing up the explosive power of words, or the crane shot of Woodward and Bernstein lost in an ocean of paper, illustrating the occasional hopelessness of their task.
Most of Rod’s own films are politics-tinged dramas that pose knotty moral questions. Among his best is Nothing but the Truth (2008), starring Kate Beckinsale as a Washington journalist who breaks a big story about a CIA operation in Venezuela, blowing an agent’s cover. She goes to jail rather than expose her source, safeguarding the integrity of journalists everywhere. But in the startling final scene, we learn precisely how she came by her scoop, and we see that her noble self-sacrifice is not so noble after all. In The Contender, Jackson Evans nominates Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) to replace his deceased vice president only to watch the confirmation process devolve into a tawdry sex scandal. Laine could deny the charges being leveled at her, but she declines on principle: “I just can’t respond to the accusations, because it’s not okay for them to be made.” In Deterrence, President Emerson must decide whether to nuke Baghdad and thereby incinerate thousands of Arabs—a decision immeasurably complicated by the fact that he’s Jewish.
Rod’s latest project gives him a new president to work with: Ronald Wilson Reagan. The TV movie Killing Reagan chronicles John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt to murder the fortieth President of the United States on March 30, 1981. (The film premiered on the National Geographic Channel on October 16, and will encore soon; look for the announcement on natgeotv.com.)
Those who know Rod were a little surprised he took on the job. “I got a phone call from my agent at CAA, and he says, ‘I want to ask you a crazy question.’ And it was a crazy question because I’m sort of this infamous liberal out here, and I’ve made nothing but liberal-leaning movies and TV shows. So he says to me, ‘Would you be interested in doing a movie about the Reagan assassination attempt?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah. That’s amazing history. I’d be interested in doing it. I think.’ ”
The slight hesitation stemmed from the source material. Killing Reagan is based on the Bill O’Reilly book of the same title—not exactly Rod’s cup of tea. Further, the book is widely considered the sole misfire in O’Reilly’s best-selling series about historical killings (Killing Jesus, etc., written with Martin Dugard). It drew particular condemnation—from the right—for positing that Hinckley’s bullet to Reagan’s chest impaired his mental faculties a mere seventy days into his now semi-sanctified two-term presidency. (Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, five years after leaving office—though some well-placed people argue that signs of diminishment showed in his second term.) So, wouldn’t O’Reilly’s controversial thesis get in Lurie’s way?
“We gracefully dodged that bullet,” Rod tells me. “We made the decision to just deal with the ticktock of the day he was shot, and then a couple of months before and after.”
Rod could then focus on doing with Killing Reagan something akin to what Pakula & Co. did with All the President’s Men—taking a true event and fashioning it into a gripping, artfully told story. “How they made a movie on a subject where everybody knows the end, and made it so suspenseful, was extraordinary,” Rod says of the latter. “In Killing Reagan, you see Hinckley on the rope line outside the Washington Hilton, and you know he’s going to shoot Reagan—you know exactly what’s going to happen. But people watching the scene are still on edge, praying that it doesn’t happen. They’re screaming at Reagan, ‘Don’t go that way! He’s gonna shoot you!’”
Two steps from the open door of his limousine, Reagan raised his left hand and waved; as he did so, six shots rang out from behind the cordon, fifteen feet away. News video captured Hinckley gripping a .22 revolver and a Secret Service agent flying at him, bringing him to the ground. Unknown to Reagan, one of Hinckley’s “Devastator” bullets caromed off the limo door, pierced his chest wall, and settled in his lung tissue, an inch from his heart. In Killing Reagan, we see the shooting and its aftermath unfold with chilling immediacy. Among the sequences that shock is Reagan (played by Tim Matheson) walking into George Washington University Hospital under his own steam—he thought he’d broken a rib while being shoved into the limo—then buckling to his knees. Agents catch the leader of the free world as he collapses and hustle him, limbs dangling, into a trauma bay, where nurses unceremoniously rip and scissor off his clothes and discover the wound. Reagan lost more than half his blood and came far closer to death than the public knew. Massively transfused, he was wheeled into an operating theater. He looked up at the surgeons, who were about to delicately extract the bullet from his chest, and quipped, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” The jokes flowed until the second he went under. “His personal courage and charisma were very much on display,” Rod notes. “He behaved heroically in that operating room.”
Focusing on the shimmering Reagans on the one hand and the scruffy Hinckley on the other, Killing Reagan features parallel story lines that generate terrible suspense as they converge. (Nancy is played by Cynthia Nixon and Hinckley by Kyle S. More, a comedian whom Rod calls “the find of the year.”) The delusional Hinckley had first set his sights on killing President Carter, the better to impress the actress Jodie Foster, whom he began stalking in the fall of 1980, during her freshman year at Yale University. In the film we see Hinckley, in all his pent-up nobodyness, eyeing Foster across the quad, and we realize with a shudder the lengths he’ll go to win her notice. Later Hinckley would call his attempt on Reagan’s life—which also wounded three other men, including Press Secretary Jim Brady, who was permanently paralyzed—“the greatest love offering in the history of the world.”
Ronald Reagan was a hard man to fathom. Even Edmund Morris, a biographer granted generous access to Reagan and his White House, confessed to being “mystified and depressed by his opaque personality.” Tim Matheson says he envisions the public Reagan as a sort of “Irish toastmaster” who “always had a joke, always had a way of putting people at ease and disarming them. He worked very hard to be the Jimmy Stewart-like guy: ‘Aw, shucks, don’t you worry about all this formality, I’m just a normal guy here.’ It never seemed to be about him—contrary to one of our candidates today.”
But the private Reagan? He had no close friends. We understand him best through his cosmic (some say codependent) bond with Nancy—a bond that is the heart of Killing Reagan. Cynthia Nixon, who played Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City, believes Reagan never would have been President without Nancy’s confidence-building ministrations. “When he and Nancy married [in 1952], his career was completely in the toilet,” she says. “As an actor, he was having a hard time paying his bills, much less having a political career. And she saw the greatest fixer-upper there ever was. She spit and polished him until he gleamed. And for many people—not me—but for many people, he did for America what Nancy Reagan did for him, made America great again.”
One expects superb acting from Nixon—witness her performance as Emily Dickinson in this year’s A Quiet Passion—but Tim Matheson? He’s had a fine career, all right, playing supporting roles in everything from Fletch (1985) to TV’s The West Wing, though he remains most indelibly linked to Eric “Otter” Stratton in Animal House (1978). It’s not a career that prepares you for a star turn as Ronald Reagan. Yet there he is, Reagan in flesh and spirit. “Tim nails it so completely,” Rod says. “It’s mind-boggling. He’s embodied Reagan in much the same way that Anthony Hopkins embodied Richard Nixon. He does it not just by the way he looks, but also in the way his body moves, in the way he smiles, in the way he tilts his head, in the way he breathes. It’s not a caricature. It’s the real deal.”
Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan’s life changed history in subtle but important ways, Killing Reagan makes clear. “Reagan believed that God had spared him for a purpose,” Matheson says, “and that purpose was to rid the world of nuclear weapons and broker peace between the United States and the Soviet Union.” Rod adds, “He became stronger, more his own man, but Nancy became weaker. She lost all her confidence and became a nervous wreck. Every time he left the White House, she was sure he was going to get a bullet.”
PUTTING POLITICS ASIDE (SORT OF)
Killing Reagan represents a turn in Rod’s recent spotty luck. He’s probably still best known for The Contender, which earned strong reviews and Oscar nominations for Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges. “I was on a decade-long roll after I made The Contender,” Rod says. “The movie didn’t do huge business, but it made money for people, it was critically successful, and people in Hollywood seemed to gravitate to its message. So I was given a lot of opportunities—and I took some of them. I had a very big television deal [he created two prime-time dramas for ABC, Line of Fire and Commander in Chief]. I had a big deal to make The Last Castle [a military prison drama starring Redford and James Gandolfini]. Any independent film I wanted to make I got to make, like Resurrecting the Champ [Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett] and Nothing but the Truth [Alan Alda, Matt Dillon and Vera Farmiga, in addition to Beckinsale].”
Even during that roll, though, Rod encountered turbulence, most notably in the fortunes of the Yari Film Group: It went bankrupt on the eve of releasing Nothing but the Truth. The movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008—to ample critical praise—but never opened in theaters. “And then I decided to remake Straw Dogs,” Rod adds with a note of gloom. The 1971 original, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman, is hard to like. It’s the story of a mathematician, David Sumner, and his English wife, Amy, going to live at a remote farmstead in her native village; among the work crew patching up their house is Amy’s old flame and David’s opposite number, a local rough named Charlie Venner. Shootings, bludgeonings, scaldings, rapes, even a decapitation by bear trap, ensue. The film’s certainly not dull, but it’s so ugly that your popcorn begins to rise; still, to some, it stands as a searing indictment of human nature and an underrated classic.
In Rod’s equally violent 2011 version, he refashioned David and Amy as a screenwriter and an actress (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) sojourning to her native Mississippi to fix up a house she has inherited from her father. The changes allow Rod to explore America’s increasingly bitter cultural divisions: blue state and red state, urban and rural, elite and common, secular and religious. We feel David’s outsider status with acute discomfort but disapprove of his superior air. And we feel menaced by Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) and his crew, whose resentment turns predatory. Roger Ebert preferred Lurie’s version. “But people simply didn’t go and see it,” Rod says. “It barely broke $10 million at the box office. There’s something called ‘director jail,’ and I think I ended up in it.”
Last year Rod directed episodes of two well-regarded TV series—NBC’s American Odyssey and AMC’s Hell on Wheels—but meanwhile worried that his filmmaking career had sailed into the doldrums. “I was being offered, I don’t want to say what movies specifically, but they were not of the highest quality. And I thought I would end up in this cage forever. So I waited and waited, and finally Killing Reagan came around, and I figured, ‘This is the one. This one can help.’ It was in my wheelhouse, it was extraordinarily compelling drama, and I had the challenge of doing something I’d never done before—a fully true story.”
In July, Bill O’Reilly saw the movie that Rod created from his book. He loved it. “He said it was ‘a win for the home team,’” Rod informed me. “Now, it’s terrific that he admires the movie, but I can’t let it get out I am on his ‘home team.’ If my liberal black San Francisco wife reads that, I may as well become a eunuch.” (Rod is married to the best-selling novelist Kyra Davis; they live in Los Angeles.) Rod, Cynthia Nixon and Tim Matheson—to name the three principals—are what conservative talk radio would call “Hollywood liberals” and worse. (When Nixon admitted she wasn’t a fan of Nancy Reagan’s, the conservative blogosphere lit up with vitriol.) And yet the portrayals are eminently convincing, which is to say well-rounded, which is to say empathetic. Good artists always work in the service of the project at hand, and O’Reilly’s verdict would seem to confirm this was the case with Killing Reagan.
Rod came away from the project admiring Reagan more than he had before—personally if not politically. “Reagan, if nothing else, was a giant,” Rod says. “Looking over this insane political year, I really can’t fathom that this Republican Party that put out Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina as their leaders thinks they’re taking the mantle of Reagan.”
It was inevitable that Rod would segue from presidents past to presidents future. Indeed, he emerged from the bubble of making Killing Reagan to find eerie resonances wafting into American public life. I talked with him for this story in July and August, a span during which John Hinckley was ordered released from prison and, almost simultaneously, Donald Trump slyly suggested “the Second Amendment people” could take care of a President Clinton who appointed judges friendly to gun control. What Hinckleys lay in wait to heed Trump’s so-called dog whistle?
“I really do believe for the first time it is not hyperbolic to say this election is about civilization itself,” Rod says. “I don’t care how flawed Hillary Clinton is. When you’ve got a guy like Trump, with the possibility of launching nuclear weapons, we’ve got to stop being so damned cute and understand we’re putting them in the hands of a guy who’s a fascist. Again, I don’t think that’s hyperbolic. What we’re dealing with here, if he really believes everything he says—building a wall, banning the Muslims, torturing people, ‘I alone can fix this’—then he’s a fascist, and there’s no two ways about it.”
TELEVISION OR BUST
As the summer went on, Rod’s artistic fortunes continued to rise. One day he tells me in his matter-of-fact way that TNT has just picked up a passion project he conceived and wrote titled Monsters of God. While a student at West Point (Class of 1984), Rod had studied the Comanche Wars of the mid-1800s, a rich but little-known facet of American border history that struck him as rife with filmic possibility. Rod weaved historical truth with imagination to create a U.S. military fort in post-Civil War Texas, overlorded by the brutal religious zealot Colonel Bill Lancaster. The action plays out against a historically accurate government effort to remove the Comanche to reservations, but Lancaster, known as “the Butcher of Shiloh,” has a different plan in mind: “He wants genocide. He wants them all gone.” (Rod developed Monsters of God with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment; he will direct and executive produce the pilot.)
With Hollywood overly fixated on comic books, gross-out comedies and big-bucks franchises (Bourne, Star Trek, etc.), much really good drama has migrated to the small screen. Shows like Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Fargo, and Mr. Robot allow writers and directors to unpack complex characters and intricate plotlines like modern-day Dickenses—and viewers have responded. “It’s going to take a great project or a life-changing lucrative project to get me to direct a motion picture that I have not created,” Rod says. “TV is where it’s at. I can’t imagine a single player in our business who doesn’t think that television has far outpaced film in terms of quality and derring-do. Plus, what you shoot will get on the air. There’s no danger of the ignominy of being in a theater for a week and watching your movie die like a pauper on the streets of a third world country.”