NatGeo’s ‘Killing Reagan’ contrasts president and would-be assassin

Cynthia Nixon (as Nancy Reagan) and Tim Matheson (as Ronald Reagan) in Killing Reagan. (Photo Credit: National Geographic Channels/ Hopper Stone, SMPSP)

Cynthia Nixon (as Nancy Reagan) and Tim Matheson (as Ronald Reagan) in “Killing Reagan.”
(Photo Credit: National Geographic Channels/ Hopper Stone, SMPSP)

This was posted on the AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Wednesday, October 12, 2016

In the NatGeo film “Killing Reagan,” the trajectories of newly elected president Ronald Reagan and troubled young man John Hinckley couldn’t be more different.

In one scene, a confident Reagan sets the stage to win the Cold War against the Russians. In the next scene, after Hinckley rattles Jodie Foster with an unsolicited phone call, he literally plays Russian roulette with himself using a handgun.

Soon, Hinckley is using that same gun to shoot Reagan in an ill-fated attempted to impress the Oscar-winning actress.

The movie, based on Bill O’Reilly’s best selling book of the same name, was shot this spring in Atlanta and airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on NatGeo, in the vein of past films “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Jesus.” Tim Matheson (“Animal House,” “The West Wing”) plays the president while Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”) portrays his devoted wife Nancy.

Matheson captures Reagan’s signature mannerisms and speech patterns without crossing the line into caricature. “It’s freaky,” said executive producer Clayton Krueger at Infinite Energy Center, where airport scenes with Hinckley as well as the Reagan debate with Jimmy Carter were shot. “You really feel like you’re looking at Ron. It’s kind of unnerving when he breaks into that toothy smile Tim is exactly Ronald Reagan’s age at the time.”

The actor said he took this role on determined to capture Reagan’s essence. “The most important thing,” Matheson said, “is to try to find the inner core of what his beliefs were. He had very strong principles in what he believed politically, personally and emotionally.” He admired Reagan’s ability to “capture the hearts of the people” while also being an astute politician, working with Democrats to pass key legislation.

Nixon said she spent more time capturing the look of Nancy than  her voice.”I never thought I’d ever play Nancy Reagan,” she said. Even if her politics didn’t necessarily align with Nancy’s, Nixon was impressed with her fortitude and ingenuity.

“She definitely saw it as her job to protect her husband in every way possible and she was aggressive about it,” Nixon said. “That was the thing that allowed Ronald Reagan to be himself, to allow him to be free and easy. She took that on.”

The title of the film “Killing Reagan” isn’t accurate to a degree. Hinckley tried to kill Reagan but didn’t succeed. He almost did.  A bullet lodged just millimeters from Reagan’s heart.

The executive producers said they went out of their way to make the film as close to factual as possible.

“We are trying to tell an authentic tale but also tell a dramatic tale,” Krueger said. The film was shot in a relatively svelte 19 production days in late spring. (Interest in this movie is international. Reporters representing publications in Italy, Holland, Mexico and England attended media day in June.)

Many of the conversations, especially regarding Reagan, were very close to reality, based on transcripts and first-hand accounts. With Hinckley, they had to use more creative license.

The film shows Reagan on camera as genial, off camera as steely and deeply loyal to Nancy, who he calls “Mommy.” Hinckley develops mental issues that are so deep seated, his parents prior to the assassination attempt set him loose, believing they had overly coddled him.

After Hinckley fired several bullets that hit four people, Secret Service agents pushed Reagan into a limo. They didn’t know he was shot until he arrived at the hospital. “I forgot to duck,” he cracked to Nancy before surgery, his sense of humor intact despite his distress.

Director Rod Lurie (“The Contender,” “Commander in Chief”) said he was “giddy” with excitement to oversee this film. “It’s hard not to admire what Reagan did when he got to that hospital and how he dealt with things. He had the instinct and presence of mind to understand he was always on stage. Stagecraft is very important for the presidency.”

TV PREVIEW

“Killing Reagan,” 8 p.m. Sunday, NatGeo

 

 

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