‘Killing Reagan’: A Fresh Look at the Assassination Attempt on Ronald Reagan

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

Quick. Name the monumental tragedy that brought the world to a standstill on March 30, 1981.

If you’re having trouble recalling, perhaps that’s because it was—thankfully—more of a near-tragedy. On that date, a bullet from the gun of schizophrenic John Hinckley Jr. hit President Ronald Reagan as the latter exited a Washington, D.C., hotel. Luckily, the assassination attempt didn’t kill the 40th president of the United States, so it hasn’t been seared into our national consciousness the way November 22, 1963, has.

Killing Reagan

The bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.

National Geographic Channel aims to fill in the gaps with the TV movie Killing Reagan. It’s the network’s fourth film based on Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling book series about plots to murder the world’s most iconic personalities. (The first three adaptations, Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus, were the cable network’s most-watched programs of all time.) Like its predecessors, the Reagan screenplay follows both victim and perpetrator separately until they horrifically, chillingly intersect.

Of course, Reagan’s survival shuffles the deck slightly. Yes, the movie does cover the frantic maneuvers that Reagan’s cabinet members made as the commander-in-chief underwent emergency surgery, including the controversial power grab by Secretary of State Al Haig (Patrick St. Esprit).

But there’s also a more pervasive subplot: the love story between President Reagan (Tim Matheson) and First Lady Nancy (Cynthia Nixon).

“They had such a deep bond that even their children felt left out,” executive producer David W. Zucker says of the couple, who affectionately called each other Ronnie and Mommy. “This film is a look at the love affair that persevered through an incredibly traumatic experience. I firmly believe that he would have been lost without her.”

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But who could portray two of the most iconic figures in our nation’s history? “Frankly, there are few actors of a certain age, stature, amiability and masculinity that could play Ronald Reagan,” says Zucker. “Especially when you don’t want someone so prominent that you’d be distracted.” They ended up choosing veteran actor and director Matheson, whose many roles include lecherous Vice President John Hoynes on The West Wing and, oddly enough, Reagan’s ghost in the movie comedy Talker. “Once I realized the script was about the couple’s relationship and the man’s vision for the country, I quickly jumped on board,” Matheson says.

For Nancy, producers turned to another familiar face in Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon. It wasn’t her first time channeling a complicated first lady, having taken on Eleanor Roosevelt in the HBO movie Warm Springs. “When you have a president as generally beloved as Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan were—the wife tends to be a lightning rod,” Nixon notes. “In Nancy’s case, the more superstitious [with astrology] and spendthrift she was perceived as, the more her husband was seen to be a good ol’ boy. But she was happy to be the bad guy and let her husband be sweet and sunny. Nancy was his guard dog, especially after he was shot.”

Killing Reagan

Nancy Reagan (Cynthia Nixon), at the bedside of her husband, President Ronald Reagan (Tim Matheson) after the shooting.

The movie concurrently follows Hinckley’s tortured path as he looks for a spectacular crime to prove his love to the young actress Jodie Foster, who was at the time a student at Yale. At different points he made plans to kill Jimmy Carter, then Foster and himself in a murder-suicide, before finally settling on the president. “Hinckley was on his way to New Haven, Connecticut [where Yale is located], when he read Reagan’s itinerary at a hotel,” says Kyle S. More (Murder in the First), who plays the deluded would-be killer. “He saw that as a sign that [Reagan’s murder] was what he was supposed to do.”

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Unlike Nixon and Matheson, More was born after the events of the film. The actor admits he knew little about the incident and based his portrayal on what he could infer from the letters the obsessed suitor had sent to Foster. And to fully inhabit Hinckley’s isolation from the real world, More was kept away from Matheson and Nixon during production. “[Director] Rod [Lurie] was almost filming two different movies, a political drama and a thriller that were shot in different styles,” More says. “It’s really cool to watch them come together.”

Killing Reagan

Kyle S. More as John Hinckley Jr.

Coincidentally, just a few weeks before Killing Reagan’s premiere, Hinckley was released from St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in D.C. after 35 years to live full-time with his elderly mother in Virginia. “That news came out as we were editing,” Zucker says. “It changed the epilogue, but outside of that, it was beyond the reach of the main story.”

Ultimately, after working on the film, most of the cast agrees that, despite a hard recovery for the then-70-year-old Reagan, the assassination attempt didn’t rattle his confidence as the country’s leader. Rather, says Nixon, “it convinced him he was spared by God to make peace with the Russians and prevent a nuclear holocaust.”

And we do recall how that turned out. Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall.

Killing Reagan, Premieres Sunday, October 16, 8/7c, National Geographic Channel.